a more compassionate olympics?

i have been watching a lot of the tokyo olympic games these past days. the athletes are amazing. physical ability combined with hours of dedicated practice and hard work is on display for the world. and i am again stunned– but this year, maybe for different reasons.

last night, i watched simone biles’ performance on the balance beam. whenever i think of the balance beam, i remember nadia comaneci’s routine in the 1976 olympics. it was the first time i had a crush on a russian! we were all amazed at the perfect scores that she had.

but simone’s performance last night felt differently. the scores were secondary. near-perfect scores do not impress us like in the past– we have seen them before. the world was watching in anticipation because last night was simone’s first appearance after withdrawing from her previous events in order to attend to mental health issues. might simone have a meltdown? how was she going to do? was she so off her usual awesome self– might she fall off the beam?

she won the bronze

out of the 30+ medals she has won over the years, how did last night rank for simone? well, she said (on winning bronze medal): ‘It means more than all the golds’

has the template for being a world class athlete shifted from “win-at-all-costs” to “compassionate-cooperative competition?”

after experiencing winning so much, has the thermometer of success changed for simone? has it changed for us?

in basketball, the shift began in 1994. in the FIBA basketball championships we sent the hoops version of being “ugly americans.” they were a talented bunch who let their opponents — and the world–know they were the best. it was a sharp contrast from the classy dream team of 1992. ( https://www.sbnation.com/2014/8/29/6006257/dream-team-ii-fiba-world-cup-1994 ). in 1996, usa basketball choose great nba players who would not embarrass the country at the olympics. the postive international image that we portray has evolved ever since.

in olympic gymnastics, the win at all costs attitude was best seen in 1996. usa’s kerri strug had injured herself before a key vault. pushed forward by her coach, she did the final vault with a serious injury. she hit a winning score for the team and was carried off the mat by her coach. the country celebrated.

if a similar scenario happened in 2021, that coach and the organization might be sued for abuse.

simone had two more notable quotes: “I didn’t really care about the outcome. I was just happy that I made the routine and that I got to compete one more time.” and “At the end of the day, we’re not just athletes or entertainment. We’re human too, and we have real emotions.”

can we enjoy the spirit of competition in and of itself? can we too put people’s humanity first and foremost?

cultural shifts do not come easy. so, will we as a country be able to primarily see athletes as people first? has simone biles’ experience in the 2021 tokyo olympics been a big enough stage for us to see the importance of mental health for people– elite athletes included? combined with naomi osaka’s withdrawal from wimbledon because of mental health issues, will we vilify or applaud such actions?

or does winning still trump human decency?

how we approach competition and victory in athletics is just a reflection of who we are as a society and who were are as individuals. how will the world– and those around us– see us? because of osaka and biles, will the on-going negative stigma being treated for mental health diminish?

’nuff said. now let me get back to analyzing how the usa men’s hoops team can demolish the australians in tomorrow’s semi-final.

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