Somewhere between the Zika stories, the doping stories and the stories about what a fetid, toxic swamp Rio really is, I got the message: I was supposed to feel cynical about these Olympics, the way we feel cynical about pretty much everything these days.
I was supposed to marvel at our talent for making messes, cutting corners, evading responsibility, procrastinating. Rio was a testament to that, both as the host of the games and as a sublime, wretched theater of humanity. All the promises we fail to keep, all the plans that go awry: They were and would be on vivid display. I was supposed to shake my head in disgust. Sigh in frustration.
Instead I cried, and I mean good tears. It was Monday morning, and I was telling someone what he’d missed on Sunday night: how American swimmer Michael Phelps defied age and his own stabs at self-destruction to swim toward yet another gold, in a men’s relay.
How American gymnast Simone Biles, in the team qualifying round, responded to the gaudy expectations for her not by crumbling but by meeting, even surpassing, every one of them.
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And then there was that tiny wisp of a Brazilian girl – 4-foot-4, 16 years old – who floated onto the balance beam, whirled the length of it and turned in a near perfect routine that no one expected. The roar from her hometown crowd was so loud, so true, that I’m certain it crossed time zones. I bet it traversed the stratosphere. No lottery winner, no matter the purse, has ever matched the glow of elation on her face.
I hadn’t even reached the part about the British gymnast who tumbled onto her head, stood up dazed and kept on going when I myself had to stop, because I was suddenly so choked up that I couldn’t get another word out.
Don’t tell me what’s wrong with the Olympics. Let me tell you what’s right with them.
In a world rife with failure and bitter compromise, they’re dedicated to dreaming and to the proposition that limits are entirely negotiable, because they reflect only what has been done to date and not what’s doable in time.
They make the case that part of being fully alive is pushing yourself as far as you can go. Every Olympic record, every personal best and every unlikely comeback is an individual achievement, yes, but it’s also a universal example and metaphor.
The swimmer Dana Vollmer, a gold medalist in 2012, stopped training, became a mother and attended to her newborn. But the pool still beckoned, and last weekend, just 17 months after giving birth, she won a silver and a bronze in Rio. Good for her. Good for all women who don’t want to obey some timeline that they never signed on to or stay in a box of someone else’s construction.
These champions usually aren’t children of extreme privilege. Biles was separated from her mother, who battled drug and alcohol addiction, at an early age. Others had worse odds and more daunting setbacks.
But they had a drive more powerful than that. They swapped resentment for goals. And they worked. By God, did they work. We tend to marvel at their freakish gifts, but we should marvel even more at their freakish devotion. That’s what made the difference.
They invested hour upon hour, day after day. They sacrificed idle time and other pursuits. They honed a confidence that eludes most of us and summoned a poise that we can only imagine. They took risks, big ones.
And they pressed on, because there was this thing that they wanted so very, very badly and the only way to know if they could get it was to put everything on the line.
I’m no naif. I know that there’s another, darker side to this – that some of them are overly preoccupied with fame, with riches. At least they’re earning it. I know that there are flaws in the system, even corruption. I’m reading and I’m hearing plenty about that, about the inane remarks that NBC’s commentators have made, and about the excessive commercial breaks that the network builds into the prime-time telecast. A certain crassness and greed have taken over. It’s true.
But I fear that with the Olympics, as with so much else, we’ve let the language of complaint supplant the language of wonder, and there’s wonder aplenty here.
Just watch Phelps kick or Biles vault heavenward, a force of will seemingly bound for the stars. Just think about what it means to aim that high, commit that much and invite the eyes of the world to see it all come together or all fall apart. If that doesn’t put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, you’re made of stone.