I just went to the Rio Olympics. Not as an athlete. As a spectator.
It was one of the best experiences of my life.
You can say it’s too expensive. You can argue that the host city is too busy – or in the case of Rio too dangerous and riddled with the Zika virus. You can worry about the unstable political environment, or how well enforced security will be. You can even express your opinions on how the modern Olympics have grown to become a social and economic burden on the world. But you should still go.
The Olympics is more than an expensive sporting event. It’s a platform for expressing the best parts of the human spirit. You witness qualities in people at the Olympics – from athletes, fans and citizens – that are becoming rare occurrences in the world.
Here’s a look at 6 of those qualities, all reasons you need to get to the Olympics at some point in your life.
1 – We need heroes.
Very few people can recognise the most significant moment of their lives as it is happening. Perhaps the birth of a child or getting married. But Olympians know for sure that the moment of competition is one of the most important in their lives. What makes athletes heroes is that they recognise the pressure of the moment, and still deliver their absolute best performance. How many of us regular people would have the same focus, poise, control and joy under similar pressure?
Think of Usain Bolt who flashed a cheeky smile as he ran faster than anyone else in the world in the 100m semi finals. That grin epitomised his joy of running.
Or Michael Phelps coming out of retirement for one more Olympics – leaving Rio with a career total of 23 gold medals. The most any other athlete has achieved is 9 gold medals. Of course he was eclipsed in the 100m butterfly by Singaporean Joseph Schooling who at 13 idolised Phelps as his own hero.
The intense focus of US gymnast Simone Biles, who at just 19 is being called the greatest gymnast alive, was evident as she completed death-defying tricks near perfectly. She’s a hero to every young gymnast just learning to point their toes.
In this day and age we don’t have many heroes to look up to. Modern media has shown us that the rich, famous and in-charge are only too human. Athletes are people we can respect as embracing the physical aspects of their humanity, and rising up to incredible heights with their performances. Athletes are our modern day heroes.
2 – We need identity.
National pride is a real phenomenon. With global culture becoming more Americanised every year, companies blurring the national borders, and travel making it easier to become a citizen of the world – we often lose our sense of national identity. The Olympics reminds us of all the good aspects of our homes.
I watched the final moments of the men’s soccer gold medal match in an unremarkable bar in the suburbs of Rio. Brazil against Germany. For Brazil it was a chance for redemption – an opportunity to recapture their national pride in the game after their devastating 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup Final. Brazil’s star striker Neymar converted the decisive penalty shot and burst into tears. In the bar next to me two grown men embraced as their own tears mirrored Neymar’s. Outside the streets of Rio erupted in celebrations. Strangers hugged. Foreigners were high-fived. The flag was kissed. Drinks were raised. At that moment Brazilians everywhere were one people.
3 – We need to witness sportsmanship.
Winning gracefully. Losing with a smile on our face. Helping someone else at the cost of our own performance. Taking accountability for our performance. We don’t see these qualities very often in many competitive spheres. We can all learn a thing or two about behaviour from watching the Olympics.
The most famous moment from the Rio Games was when runners Abby D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (NZ) collided in the women’s 5000m race. They then proceeded to help each other get up, and make it across the finish line. They’d never met before.
In the women’s beach volleyball Kerri Walsh from the USA already had 3 Olympic golds to her name, and was going for her fourth. Then her and her partner April Ross lost the semi-final. What did Kerri do? She congratulated their opponents and then posted publically that the loss was her fault, and that the passing skill she showed was not adequate for Olympic levels of competition. That’s some accountability. They went on to win the bronze.
4 – We need more acceptance.
While Trump talks about building a wall to keep the Mexicans out and banning all Muslims from the USA, the Olympics showed what can happen when we act with acceptance of differences.
The women’s beach volleyball uniforms are usually one of the hot topics for discussion at the Olympics, but this year for a different reason. The Egyptian women took the sand wearing long sleeves and a hijab.
A refugee team comprised of athletes selected by the IOC marched for the first time in Olympic history. The cheers as the entered the stadium in the Opening ceremony were as loud as the cheers for the host country. Meanwhile politicians talk about not letting refugees into their countries.
Even Brazil as a country is leading the way in demonstrating acceptance. Walk around the suburbs of Rio and see people of all different colours in friendships. The locals – Cariocas – welcome foreigners to their homes (literally in the case of the Rio residents offering to host the Australian athletes). There’s a stretch of beach in Ipanema that is openly acknowledged as the gay beach – but anyone is welcome. Even the speeches at the opening ceremony emphasised one world, and one people. Western countries could pay attention to the spirit of acceptance not just spoken about during the Olympics, but lived out every day in the host nation.
5 – We need connection.
Go to watch the Olympics and you’ll leave with plenty of new friendships. Seeing someone in the stands or the street wearing your national colours foreshadows an instant moment of connection. You scream together in your support of your country’s athletes despite the fact you’d probably never speak to them without the Olympics as a catalyst.
At a broader level the Olympics connects people not just from one nation, but across all nations.
Lee Eun-ju of South Korea and Hong Un-jong of North Korea were captured smiling together for a selfie – despite their two countries still being at war with each other.
And for the ultimate connection, come to the Olympics and you might just get engaged! Four different marriage proposals were captured during the Games – luckily everyone said yes.
6 – We need hope.
The Olympics brings out the best in human performance, and the best of the human spirit. The chance to compete or win gives hope to everyone from the poorest countries to the smallest countries.
Favelas are what the poorest areas in Rio are called. So perhaps it is only fitting that Brazil’s first gold went to a young women who grew up in one of the poorest and most violent favela’s – the City of God. Rafaela Silva won the 57kg judo event.
Kosovo athletes were allowed to march for the first time under their own country’s name. Previously they had to choose between representing Serbia or Albania as Kosovo was caught up in the turmoil of the Yugoslavia disintegration. The Olympics gives hope to their nation that they will be free of strife and recognised as their own country.
Fiji won it’s first ever Olympic medal – gold- in the rugby 7s. Monica Puig won the first ever gold for Peurto Rico in the tennis. These small nations rarely get a chance to shine on the world stage, and their citizens rarely get a chance to think globally. The Olympics provides the platform for them to shine. And for the people of their nation to hope.
You might have missed your chance to see the Rio Olympics in person, but it’s time to start organising your ticket to Tokyo. Your TV doesn’t transmit the truly great parts of the Olympics – heroes, identity, sportsmanship, acceptance, connection and hope.
We don’t see enough of these in the world, and the Olympics is the grandest stage of all to witness the best of humanity. And perhaps inspire you to live a little more of these qualities yourself.