The divisions in this world are profound and long standing. And the hope to surmount them, whether through politics or force of arms, is quixotic at best given both historical precedence and human nature. Yet that very hope is what makes the Olympics unique, notwithstanding its own human frailties and organizational disappointments.
On its fields of play we are witness to a society of strivers quilted of many colors sewn together with a common thread, the quest for excellence and an originating creed espousing the importance of being over winning.
Though it is a patchwork that is in constant need of mending, it has survived for more than a century building on a frame of inclusion, which is no mean feat in itself.
We never know when we will see an example of the Olympic creed in its purest form, or if you will see it at every Olympics at all. Certainly, we are blessed with performances for the ages at every Games which fall in line with the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. And we have already been witness to historical performances by the likes of Wade van Niekerk in the men’s 400m and Usain Bolt in the 100. And certainly there will be more special performances to come in this final week in Rio.
But while all the bright colors of national origin (or footwear allegiance) remain most apparent in the vests worn by the athletes, it is the athletes themselves who see beyond their vests into the hearts of their fellow competitors beating beneath.
We saw it in France’s Renaud Lavillenie and American Sam Kendricks leading the rhythmic clapping for Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva in the final stages of the men’s pole vault final, though it was their positions on the podium that the Brazilian was attempting to alter. We saw it in American Abbey D’Agostino helping New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin to her feet in the women’s 5000m heats after their legs tangled and both went down hard.
In the crucible of competition all that defines us both comes to bear and is stripped away at the same moment. All that I have been or hope to be is reduced to the moment at hand. This is the eternal moment when we are beyond the bounds of time, though, in fact, we may still be clocked by others on the outside by that limiting measure. Within the fraternity/sorority of competition it is the act rather than the person that emerges to unite us in some modest form of universal struggle.
We can see how difficult this quilting truly is when we look to the world of politics, whether in the U.S. presidential campaign, or in the European Union’s current attempt at defining its future. There, a thousand years of national divisions defined by blood and wars have hardened hearts and released spasms of revanchist pride (see the recent Brexit vote in U.K.). It is a difficult history to surmount, much less in a single generation during which tumult and dislocation loosed by ongoing wars in the Middle East is a primary driver.
In any open society elections expose fault lines and divisions as new ideas are offered and debated while old ways are challenged. Yet in sport the presence of the other is what brings out our own best efforts, for it is by the force of competition that excellence is mounted.
As we can see there is much in the world that is conspiring to separate us, while very few things find universal appeal. Even a mother’s hope for her child is defined differently in different places. Yet the Olympics, though shadowed by corruption and cynicism too, stands as the best expression of our common bond and shared hope.
In this gravitational field, against others similarly blooded and armed, we attempt to measure ourselves against our limits. And though we often fall short, it is the striving against others that unites us and best illustrates that, notwithstanding our divisions, there still exists in most people a desire for empathy and understanding beyond the fields of play. The question that remains, then, is how to extend that desire beyond a 17-day peak once every four years?