Athletes and Icons

A cheetah is pictured on October 19, 2012 at the Opelzoo near Kronberg, western Germany. In the wild, cheetahs live in Africa
A cheetah is pictured on October 19, 2012 at the Opelzoo near Kronberg, western Germany. In the wild, cheetahs live in Africa and parts of the Middle East. The animals are known for their ability to run faster than any other land animal. AFP PHOTO / BORIS ROESSLER GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read BORIS ROESSLER/AFP/Getty Images)

This weekend, the world will watch as over 6,000 athletes from 85 countries descend upon the town of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

During the two weeks every two years that the Olympic Games dominate newscasts around the globe, people are transfixed. Fans intently follow athletic events that heretofore held no interest for them whatsoever. (When was the last time, other than during an Olympiad, you scoured the newspaper to see the results of the Women's Skeleton competition?) The drama and the excitement of watching the race for gold captures our imagination. Heroes and legends are born during the Olympics: Jesse Owens at the Berlin Games, the "Miracle on Ice" that was the 1980 U.S. Men's Hockey Team in Lake Placid, gymnast Nadia Comaneci's "perfect ten."

Every Olympics has its controversies, and Sochi is no exception. What happens at the games, in the host country, and in the Olympic Village, is watched with great care. Why does it matter so much to us? Because the Olympic Games are special -- they represent an ideal. And in a world where practical concerns of geopolitics are what usually drive the action on the international stage, to have an institution that is inspired by such lofty ideals is special. The Olympics are supposed to be about being the best of who we are, not just in terms of athletic performance, but as human beings.

The games are an iconic event on the world stage, and that is why it matters to us. If the Olympics, with its long tradition of cooperation, sportsmanship and even heroism fails to live up to its promise, then what hope does the rest of the world have? And when the Olympic ideal succeeds in the world, it gives us hope that we can spread those values of peace, fair play and mutual understanding beyond the Olympiad, and make a better world. The possibility for greatness comes alive, and we are inspired.

The cheetah is an iconic species in the animal kingdom. Ask a room full of schoolchildren about big cats, and many will tell you how much they love the cheetah. For millennia, artists have depicted the cheetah, kings have sought them out as pets, and cultures around the world have revered it for its speed and grace.

And during this Olympiad, the cheetah, one of the animal kingdom's greatest athletes, has some allies. We're excited to see CCF Ambassador Anna Fenninger compete in Alpine Skiing in Sochi. Anna has been a tireless advocate for Cheetah Conservation Fund, and came to visit us in Namibia last year to learn more about the cheetah's race against extinction. Since her visit, she's been doing her best to help us win that race. We're also excited because we've found a way for everyday athletes -- runners, bikers and other sports enthusiasts -- to use their passion for sports to help us save the cheetah. Our HUMANS FOR CHEETAHS charity team will be racing in their inaugural effort this May in Portland, Oregon.

With almost a third of species of wildlife that have been evaluated by the IUCN listed as threatened with extinction, I am sometimes asked, "Why save the cheetah?" And some of the answer boils down to this: If we can't muster the world's attention and resources to save the cheetah, an iconic species that is treasured worldwide as a paragon of speed and grace, then what hope do the rest of the endangered species really have?

Icons matter, not because of what they are in and of themselves, but because of the ideals that they symbolize and the ways in which those ideals can be utilized for the greater good. The race is on to save the cheetah. And if we can win the race for the cheetah -- if we can successfully bring to bear the necessary resources and programming to secure the future of the cheetah -- the possibility that we can save any of the thousands of other threatened species, the power to save whole ecosystems, lies within our grasp.

It's the possibility of greatness, and during the 2014 Olympic Games, I hope we are all inspired.