The Olympics recently concluded after two weeks of athletic excellence, heartbreak, and triumph. Missing this year were the crowds cheering on the athletes as they competed. I found that watching on TV, I didn’t feel that the competitions were diminished because of the empty gymnasiums, arenas, and stadiums. Maybe we have gotten used to this new reality, even as crowds have returned to sports here in America.
I am often a bit cynical about the Olympics. I can be turned off by a lot of what surrounds the games: the corruption of the International Olympic Committee; the thick sentimentality in the presentation of the games on TV; the heavy handed nationalism of countries trying to one up one another. This year, however, very little of that mattered. It has been a tough 18 months and I enjoyed diving into two weeks celebrating the joy of sport.
This year I was not put off by the sappy human-interest stories about the athletes; I was craving more. It was a balm seeing the exhilaration on the face of an American pole vaulter as she fell to the ground, knowing her jump put her in position to win gold. Or seeing the Italian and Qatari high jumpers embrace as they decided to share gold rather than continue their jump off. Or watching the American shot putter describe how a year ago she was struggling just to get by and make ends meet and now she was a silver medalist.
In a year and half when we have failed to be able to do the most basic tasks in life, it is inspiring to watch others achieve amazing feats of athletic skill. Israel rejoiced in its most successful games ever, winning 2 bronze and 2 golds (the country only had one total gold in its entire history before this year). As with many Israeli accomplishments, this one was not without controversy.
Artem Dolgopyat, the first Israeli to ever win a medal in artistic gymnastics, took home the gold, but we later learned that he could not marry his girlfriend in Israel. Dolgopyat is not considered Jewish by the Israeli chief rabbinate because his mother is not Jewish. Politicians used the moment to call for civil marriage, which exists in virtually every western democracy, but not Israel.
Dolgopyat’s story is a reminder that there is a difference between nationality, religious identity, and personal status. He is Israeli and can compete for his country, and might consider himself Jewish, but in Israel only the rabbinate gets to decide your eligibility for official Jewish marriage. In short, he is a human being, an athlete, and a champion. Yes, he represents his country, but he competes for himself. Like Simon Biles and her decision to pull out of competition, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.
This year more than any other, the Olympics were about people, and how they face challenges and overcome them. We may not be able to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds or do amazing twists and turns 10 meters above the water, but we all can do amazing things. And when we do, we should bask in the glory like the champions we are.