I have been obsessed with the Olympics for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, it was simply another attempt at replicating my big brother as we sat side-by-side, eyes glued to the screen. Despite time and maturity, however, the draw remained just as powerful. As the world gathers in Rio de Janeiro to witness the greatest athletes of all time, I cannot help but think about why this ancient tradition continues to hold all of us captive.
The obvious attraction is the freakish display of acrobatic feats, as athletes like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Michael Phelps seem to defy science. Then there are the inspiring back-stories―athletes such as rugby player and cancer survivor Jillion Potter putting everything on the line to get one chance to compete on the world stage. Multitasking athletes like Gevvie Stone, part-time rower and full-time physician, make mere mortals look lazy. In a sport notorious for artificial enhancement, weight lifters like Kendrick Farris are able to defy convention and make a statement by going vegan. And then there is the diversity of the US team, where an athlete like Simone Manuel can shatter stereotypes and prove that nothing levels the playing field quite like sports.
Even more interesting is to analyze the Olympian psyche, undoubtedly a reflection of a broader human psychology. These superhuman athletes are able to channel their boundless energy and passion with laser sharp focus, concentrating fully on the task at hand. Whether it is Nathan Adrien swimming the 50-meter freestyle, or Simone Biles balancing on a 4-inch beam, the ability to remain mindful and in the moment is an elusive skill that they have somehow mastered. As soon as competition is over, however, the game face, stoic demeanor, and iron will instantly melts away as years of bottled up emotions erupt.
It is telling that when prodded, victorious athletes tend to share similar sentiments about those crowning moments. The emotional display on the podium is not actually about winning the medal. Rather, the tears flow when recalling years of devotion juxtaposed with untold doubt, fear and failure. In an era when instant gratification, short attention spans, quick fixes, and easy outs are the norm, it is refreshing to behold true dedication and commitment in the face of such herculean adversity.
The joy that comes along with a world-class performance is not about basking in the spotlight either, as many athletes eschew the media glare and find the public attention overwhelming. Instead, champions fondly reflect on a lifetime of sacrifice once they reach the end of the road. They think back to the solitary toil, relying not on external validation but rather on their own mental fortitude to carry them forward during the dark times. This quiet self-confidence stands in stark contrast to the self-obsessed social media junkies we have become.
These games are as much about hope, heart and gratitude as they are about the triumph of the human spirit. The Olympic spirit reminds us, above all else, that life really is about the journey. The destination is simply icing on the cake.