Commentary: Athletes’ Olympic spirit should inspire us all
For weeks we’ve been buffeted by negative political campaigning, a mixed economic recovery, wildfires, droughts and mass-murders. But the 2012 Olympic Games have provided a breeze of blessed relief for the United States.
While some of our athletes set some stunning individual Olympic records, the U.S. succeeded the most by exemplifying the best of the Olympic spirit. That spirit is meant to inspire, and oh, did it!
President Barack Obama described the spirit of the Olympics as reaching for “a dream that no matter who we are, where we come from, no matter what we look like or what hand life has dealt us, with hard work, and discipline and dedication, we can make it if we try. That’s not just the American dream. That is the Olympic Spirit. It’s the essence of the Olympic Spirit.”
Many athletes reached for their dreams and excelled. Swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, winning 22 medals in his Olympic career -- 18 of them gold.
Phelps exemplified the Olympic Spirit most, however, when he came back after losing two races to compete in a team relay. He ended his career with a gold medal in the Medley Relay, ending his Olympic wins the same way he began: as part of a team. That, to me, exemplifies the Olympic Spirit.
As Phelps exited, a newcomer entered and captured our hearts. Sixteen-year-old Gabby Douglas won the most prized possession in women’s gymnastics: the Olympic All-Around gold medal.
Her personal story also inspires. At age 14, after her parents divorced, she left her family in Virginia and traveled to Iowa to focus on training for the Olympics. Gabby lived with a host family so she could be trained by Liang Chow. Gabby described to a TV reporter how she felt looking out the airplane window at the miles and miles of corn fields surrounding West Des Moines. Now Gabby Douglas, and the whole world, knows she is a real “golden girl.”
America’s highest achievers often overcame particularly difficult personal odds. Their victories testify to the American Spirit of endurance, resilience and perseverance; their victories also exemplify the Olympic Spirit of transcending limitations and obstacles to reach for a dream.
At the Olympics, wins are measured by fractions of a second, or by an extra stretch. AP photographer Gregory Bull snapped Gabby at her moment of excellence, saying, “I know there is that one moment where she jumps higher and stretches further back than everyone else. I knew that key moment was coming -- and I knew I should wait and nail it.” He nailed the shot as Gabby nailed the event, after already earning a gold medal in the U.S. team final.
With all the problems and challenges we face as Americans, we should leave the Olympic games inspired, determined to revive the American Dream. Our Olympic athletes should remind us of who we are. We are optimists; we overcome difficult odds; we transcend race and partisan divisions. With this spirit, we can continue to excel as a society, working together. What we’ve done in the Olympics, we can do in Washington.
Our Olympic stars weren’t perfect. That’s important to remember. Phelps didn’t even place in his first event, and Gabby lost focus in her last competition, slipping off the balance beam. Yet both were resilient and determined, and leave the games triumphant. It is human to err as well as to excel.
Good sportsmanship is a key ingredient of the Olympic Spirit. I was impressed and uplifted to see how often fierce competitors embraced a colleague who had edged them out to take the lead. Their smiles and delight in their colleague’s success were genuine. The hugs were heartwarming.
Political campaigns should be like the Olympics, where each candidate for the presidency strives to the limit of his or her abilities, where the focus is on each aspirant’s view for the future of America, instead of attempting to win by an unrelenting criticism of the other.
Maybe our U.S. Olympic team can serve as a role model for all our candidates -- and their supporters. Maybe our politicians and their teams will pause and reconsider the strategies they use to pursue our vote and gain our trust.
(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)