“The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
– Pierre de Coubertin, on July 24, 1908
Fine words spoken by an aristocratic French educator, historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee, but I suspect few Olympic athletes want anything less than victory.
High-level athletes believe in themselves, and few visualize finishing second. Since Monsieur Coubertins’ days of amateur athletics, things have changed. Many athletes receive sponsor support that allows them to extend their careers, but they also live with the performance-driven pressure required to maintain that support. I’ve had numerous conversations with former Olympians. I know that it takes years until the gray hair sets in and the body no longer looks like sculpted marble that they can savor the extraordinary achievement of simply making an Olympics.
Track and Field athletes compete primarily against themselves. Controlling their performance requires effort, discipline, and humility. Setbacks are common, and improvement comes slowly. Because of that, the world of track and field is filled with tremendous respect for others doing what you do. Post-event hugs and handshakes are meaningful, even when it comes after someone else has beaten you. Seeing these expressions of humility up-close has been one of the greatest pleasures of working as an official. Performing in the Olympics crowns an athlete’s life. Missing from Tokyo will be the victorious smiles of a winner jumping into their mother’s arms. The Tokyo Olympics, with 33 different sports, 50 disciplines, and over three hundred separate events from Aquatics to Wrestling, will have no fans, no festival, and no Olympic Village celebrations!
The absence of fans changes little about how we experience a “Made-for-TV” competition for most of us. For the athletes, who know how to focus on what they can control, this Olympics will be like no other. Fans or no fans, they will handle it well despite not having a crowd exhorting them to go faster in a race or pushing them toward an adrenaline-boosted jump or throw.
Excerpted from The Economist:“ ... the atmosphere will be gloomier, duller, and chaste. For the athletes, life in the village will be circumscribed, as laid out in a 70-page book of prohibitions. They have been asked to arrive in Japan as late as possible (no earlier than five days before the start of their events) and to leave as soon as possible (within two days after their event’s end). They must present negative results in two tests taken during the four days before they leave for Japan, and another negative test result on arrival. Though more than 80% of athletes are expected to be vaccinated, they will undergo daily tests, with a confirmed case leading to possible disqualification. Masks will be mandatory except when sleeping, eating and competing, meaning that athletes will be required to wear them even while working out in the Olympic village’s gyms and, if they make it that far, while standing on the podiums to receive their medals. They will not be allowed to go anywhere except to their accommodation and competition venues.”
Omm: I have one event highlighted more than any other, the 400-meter hurdle race that may include the two best women hurdlers in history, Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin. Eleven childhood years in New York leave me fond of many things East Coast, and Muhammad hails from Queens and McLaughlin from New Jersey. I root for these two extraordinary women, especially how they push each other to greatness. In my Zen fantasy, Muhammad and McLaughlin will cross the finish line tied, hand-in-hand in world record time.
I’ll also be watching the great Keni Harrison, the American women’s 100-meter hurdler who moves with little regard for gravity or friction. And the second-fastest 200-meter women’s sprinter of all time, Gabby Thomas, sending out a plea to African Americans not to ignore the desires and achievements of African-American Olympians have earned and seek during the Olympics. It was a poignant statement by an impressive woman who is so much more than an athlete. A reminder that the skills required of a great athlete translate into other aspects of life. And also, there’s Deanna Price, the greatest women’s hammer thrower in history, and Trayvon Bromell, Galen Rupp, Rai Benjamin, Erriyon Knighton, Noah Lyles, Allyson Felix, et al.!
And oh yeah! All the other sports that I don’t write about but plan to watch!
It is a crazy year in a crazy world, but why not take a few minutes to tune into Tokyo and appreciate the finest athletes on this beautiful planet?