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”.
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When Eric Moussambani swam for Equatorial Guinea at the 2000 Olympics, he didn’t win. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. He gained entry into the Olympics without meeting the minimum qualifications via a wild card draw designed to help developing countries participate. Before the race, Moussambani had never seen a fifty metre Olympic-sized pool in his life. He took up swimming only eight months before the event and trained back home in a tiny hotel pool – when there were no guests.
In his 100 metre heat, the two other competitors from Niger and Tajikistan were both disqualified for false starts, so he swam alone against the clock. This was the first time that he had ever swum a full 100 metre race – something the crowd immediately suspected. He swam awkwardly – with his head out of the water and his legs barely kicking. In his first lap, he was clearly struggling. In his second lap, he was nearly drowning, and everyone was wondering if he could even complete the race. But he was fighting with everything he had.
At the turn, the 18 thousand strong crowd began to roar in unison and with each stroke, the noise got louder and louder. Twenty metres from the finish mark, Moussambani was hardly moving, but with the crowd urging him on, he literally inched towards the finish. He finally hit the wall, sending the crowd into a delirium of ecstasy. The mad cheering and stomping by the crowd all but lifted the roof off the stadium.
His time of one minute and fifty-two seconds was a minute slower than all his competitors. It was even slower than what some swimmers took to swim 200 metres. But did all that matter? Eric had given an honest effort and done his very best. Most of all, he dared to compete despite knowing that he had no chance of winning. He had put up an incredible display of the Olympic spirit.
Another athlete who showed this incredible spirit was Luvsanlkhundeg Otgonbayar, the sole female marathoner who represented Mongolia in the 2004 Olympics. It was a scorching 35 degrees Celsius during the race, and many top athletes (including record holder Paula Radcliffe) had abandoned the race or simply given up. But not Otgonbayar, for she simply insisted on carrying on despite the searing heat and brutal hills of the course. By 10 p.m., the race wasn’t a race at all. In fact, the organizers were already preparing the stadium for the closing ceremony when she trotted into the stadium at an infinitesimal pace. By that time, Japan’s Mizuki Noguchi already finished the race an hour earlier. However, with the crowd cheering her on, she went on to complete the race 3:48:42, half an hour behind the second-slowest competitor. Otgonbayar, the daughter of camel and sheep herders, gave the thumbs up to a couple of journalists after the race. “Even if I finished last, it was all right, because I still finished and many people, even famous people, didn’t do that.” she said with a satisfied smile.
These two stories serve to remind us that true Olympic spirit is often found away from the breed of gold medallists wrapped up in lucrative sponsorship deals, whose faces are plastered on billboards around the world. It is those who give everything they have, even if they ultimately finish last that are the ones that truly personify the Olympic spirit. After all, the greatest glory comes not from winning, but from the pride of partaking in this glorious sporting event, from living the Olympic dream.
After all, the Olympics is no ordinary event. It represents so much more than 16 days of running, jumping and swimming.
The Olympics is a toast to humanity. It brings out the best, and the worst in human nature. It uplifts, and crushes us at times. The Olympics unites; it brings people closer together through the love of sport. A great victory, a great hero, a great team, becomes a shared experience for everyone watching. There are few events that can unite people the same way the Olympics can.
The Olympics is a living soap opera, each time conjuring fables of worthy heroes and deserving villains, moments of triumph and heartbreak, parables of victory and defeat. At the heart of these all this is the Olympic spirit; for only true Olympic spirit can inspire tales of passion, courage and dignity.
Sport can be painful, and the Olympics is the ultimate theatre of suffering, physically and emotionally.Without suffering there would be so such thing as the Olympics. Nevertheless, we should be thankful about the agony and hardship that Olympics can bring, for it is only in this struggle that sport can reveal an athlete’s true colours. After all, the Olympics is not merely an examination of how good you are at running, jumping or swimming. The Olympics Games are a test of character and sheer will, in the last strides of the mile race when your oxygen debt feels unrepayable, in that moment where your body starts to rebel against your mind during the uphill finish of a marathon, in that instant when ball meets boot in the last kick of the football game.
Whether you are a gold medallist, or a failed qualifier, it is this knowledge that you laid down everything you had during these fleeting moments that make your own Olympic tale something so perfect, tragic, and heroic.
When all is said and done, it is the tales that will stay in our hearts when everything else is long forgotten.