A test of the human spirit | ParkRecord.com

A test of the human spirit

Tom Kelly
Park Record Columnist

For all the rhetoric served up by media — from mosquitos to politics to budget and drugs — the Olympic Games in Rio really came down to just one simple element — a test of the human spirit. For 17 days, we sat mesmerized, soaking in the thrill of victory as well as the agony of defeat. On opening evening, we beamed with pride as Team USA came into the stadium all fresh and ready. We lived vicariously every time Michael Phelps or Simone Biles won another medal. And we felt our hearts tug as athletes like Mara Abbott had medals in sight, only to have them ripped from their grasp.

What is it that creates such passion in our nation every two years? When you think about it, very few things in our world today have stood the test of time like the Olympics. Going back to 776 BC, every four years athletes from warring nations set aside their differences and contested athletic battles on the plains of Olympus. Today, laurel wreaths have been replaced with gold, silver and bronze medals. But 2,700 years later, the same principles bring together men and women of all races, ethnicities and nationalities to challenge one another at the Olympic Games.

Usain Bolt wears the yellow and green of Jamaica. But he runs for all humanity. How many Americans were cheering him every second of the way each time he ran for gold? In three Olympics, he's never lost. His success has universally captivated the planet, unifying the world around the success of one human being.

Olympic athletes are a special breed. Gwen Jorgensen trained her entire life for a medal moment in London four years ago. A simple flat tire in the cycling leg of the triathlon wiped away years of preparation. It's inconceivable how a human being can set that aside and refocus on doing it again — four years later. Her smile coming first to the finish line Saturday in Rio warmed our hearts. But the tears of passion that flowed down her face told the real story as she became an Olympic champion.

Why are we attracted to Olympians in sports we've never known? They are truly the kids next door. They're the ones we babysat when they were young. They're the ones we see in the grocery store. They're the ones who say hi and ask how we're doing. They are the young men and women who truly appreciate those around them who bring support to their dreams.

In just 52.70 seconds, young Simone Manuel changed the lives of countless young African-American athletes. Her gold in the 100-meter freestyle swim was the first for an African-American woman. She covered her mouth with her hand — aghast as she realized what it meant, tears streaming down into the pool.

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We all cringed time and time again while watching balance beam. Etched in our minds are stars of the past who changed the sport of gymnastics — Olga Korbut, Mary Lou Retton, Larissa Latynina or Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 at age 14. Winning four gold medals, Biles and her four teammates changed it all once again — soaring ever higher and sticking tricks that were inconceivable in the past.

If you are 45 or older, you likely remember vividly the Sports Illustrated cover in 1972 with Mark Spitz sporting his seven gold medals. In his career he won nine. Michael Phelps has now claimed 23. His five gold medals were a benchmark of the Games. But the most meaningful story was his silver, defeated by young Singaporean Joe Schooling. Joe grew up in America and idolized Phelps. He was his hero, his inspiration. As Phelps reached across the lanes to congratulate his friend, there were only smiles. For Michael, it wasn't about winning another gold medal. It was about how he left the sport. To know how he has served as a role medal, how he has inspired a generation — well, that was a lot more meaningful than another gold medal.

Last Saturday night, millions of us sat transfixed as home nation Brazil took on Germany for the men's soccer gold medal. In our minds, we were all sitting alongside tens of thousands of Brazilians in MaracanĂ£ — adorned in yellow and green, hoping and praying for the save that would set up our hero Neymar to strike the winning goal and bring life and joy to our challenged nation.

And how many of us shed a tear watching the touching story of sportsmanship between runners Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino, when Hamblin saw more value in helping another than in winning an Olympic medal?

That is why we hold the Olympics close to our hearts.

In 536 days from the Rio closing ceremony, the world will gather again — this time in PyeongChang, South Korea. It will be a different set of heroes this time — the likes of Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety, David Wise, Shaun White, Kelly Clark, maybe even Bode Miller. Once again, we will all be spellbound watching them soar through the air and hold on to a tight, icy line at 80 mph.

Whatever their exploits, it is a test of their human spirit.