It is easy to see why so many people are fans of Michael Phelps. We humans have this obsession with the idea of victory and he, quite simply, is the epitome of triumph. The triumph of motion as he thrusts through water with the power of a torpedo, the triumph of one man against his rivals as they try in vain to catch up, and the triumph of the possible over the impossible as he breaks one record after another. The memory of his amazing gold-medal swim in the 2008 Beijing Olympics would have been no doubt etched into the retinas of millions of people worldwide. To many, he is the ultimate Olympic hero.
To me, however, an Olympic hero takes its shape in the form of last-place finishers as much as it does in gold medal winners. A true hero is not the athlete that runs the fastest, jumps the highest, plays the best, but one that stays true to the ethos of the Olympics; one that possesses the Olympic spirit.
The Olympic spirit is about a different sort of triumph; not about the triumph of motion, strength or grace, but about the triumph of the human spirit. It is not about the bronze, silver, gold; the medals, results and glory, but about the head, heart and soul. It is about respect for sport, about the dignity of competing and the willingness to give your very all.
Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, summed it up the best. He said, “The important thing is not to win, but to take part”.