At the Olympics, there are athletes hoping to launch careers. If they emerge from the Games as especially photogenic winners, maybe they’ll be on their way. Dancing With the Stars awaits.
There are team athletes determined to upend their rivals. The U.S. and Canadian women’s ice hockey teams are no longer the only serious contenders for gold, but the competition between the two teams has been close and constant enough so that for each member of both teams, winning an Olympic gold medal is a serious matter. They are not, as the cliché has it, “just happy to be here.”
There are lots more athletes in it for the ride, rather than for the glory, because they know the glory isn’t within reach. They are the bobsledders who were track athletes until they answered the call put out by the International Bobsled Federation for potential bobsledders from countries without snow.
Every edition of the Opening Ceremonies features youngsters taking videos of everything around them as they march. They look less like competitors than like star-struck spectators who want to make sure they don’t forget anything that happens on the big night. They know that they won’t be around for the medal rounds.
At every Olympics, no matter the nature of the propaganda or the security concerns, what these athletes have in common is the opportunity to learn that no matter what their respective governments might argue, the distinctions between themselves and their competitors are negligible. The athletes can make friends. They can recognize that beyond demonstrating the capacity of athletes to get bigger, faster, and stronger, the Olympics can offer an opportunity for athletes and everybody watching them to get wiser.
Spectators from the U.S. who attend the Games may have been motivated by the opportunity to cheer for the athletes representing their nation. But if they keep their eyes and minds open, they’ll see performances by athletes from around the world that will astonish and delight them. And they’ll have the opportunity to recognize that all the corruption and tension bound to be bundled into any international event as big as the Olympics notwithstanding, the triumph of any skater or skier is an invitation to wonder and to the appreciation of what talent, training, dedication, and good fortune can combine to create, no matter the colors of the flag under which the athlete performs.