The Olympic spirit

Who misses the Cold War?

It certainly affected how we viewed the Olympics. The competing ideologies of the United States and the Soviets played to nationalistic impulses on both sides, making the games political theater as much as a sporting spectacle.

The Cold War rivalry provided a convenient black-and-white template to guide our sentiments. Every American athlete was a hero, regardless of individual temperament, by virtue of putting everything on the line to validate our way of life.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the geopolitical landscape has changed and with it our expectations of American athletes. In many ways the Olympics has returned to its founding principle — that athletic competition has the power to benefit mankind and encourage peace among the nations of the world.

But only if Olympic athletes possess the grace and humility to put the competition in perspective.

Hope Solo forgot the Olympic motto: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s national team, told reporters that her team played “a bunch of cowards” following America’s shocking quarterfinals loss to Sweden. The Swedes used a conservative game plan against the favored Americans, then won on penalty kicks.

Solo’s comments were quickly disavowed by her teammates, but her petulance and attitude of entitlement had already painted a picture of Americans as sore losers.

Ryan Lochte and his U.S. swimming teammates didn’t help America’s standing in the international community of athletes by claiming to have been mugged at gunpoint in the host city by assailants flashing police badges. Inconsistencies in their statements led Rio police to investigate. Surveillance footage shows the swimmers faced off with a security guard at a gas station after breaking a bathroom door. The robbery story looks like a lie.

Unfortunately, these “ugly American” moments overshadow countless examples of U.S. athletes rising to the occasion and exemplifying the Olympic spirit.

In the second heat of the women’s 5,000 meters Tuesday, Abbey D’Agostino of the United States reminded us that you don’t have to win to give a gold medal-worthy effort.

New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin tripped during the race, causing D’Agostino to stumble and fall as well.

But instead of immediately attempting to catch the pack, the American helped Hamblin to her feet and urged her to keep running. D’Agostino hurt her knee in the spill and finished last. But she finished.

And that’s what the Olympics are all about. The emphasis has always been on being a better person than athlete. Those lessons should start early — on Little League diamonds and in gymnastics studios — so by the time American athletes reach the world stage, they understand they represent a country that prizes effort and good sportsmanship over medals.


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