The Olympics: Like Real Life, Only Better

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Bad things happen. Even at the Olympics.

Looking at this year’s games in Rio, you can point to any number of mistakes, accidents and bone-headed moves. Just ask Ryan Lochte. Or Al Trautwig. Or the technicians in charge of the Olympic diving pool.

But sometimes, the Olympics transcend all that. They go beyond even their motto of “faster, higher, stronger” and add one more word: “Better.”

New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and the United States’ Abbey D’Agostino were running in the pack during a women’s 5,000-meter qualifying round Aug. 16. Suddenly, Hamblin fell. D’Agostino tripped over the fallen competitor, crashing to the ground herself.

Turns out, D’Agostino tore her ACL in the crash, ending her Olympics and sidelining her for a good long while. But hey, we know this stuff happens. Accidents and injuries are part of the sport. They’re part of every sport. You can be the best athlete in the world. You can work and train until you’re in absolutely peak condition. You can dream of an Olympic moment for your entire life … only to have it crumble with one bad step.

But during this race—an unremarkable qualifying round—something kinda remarkable happened. D’Agostino, unaware that her knee was as damaged as it was, hobbled back to Hamblin and helped her up. Then, when it looked as though D’Agostino was unable to go any farther herself, Hamblin helped pull her up and encouraged her to finish the race.

Which is exactly what she did. Despite tearing her ACL.

Here’s what D’Agostino said in a statement afterward:

Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance—and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.

By far the best part of my experience of the Olympics has been the community it creates, what the Games symbolizes. Since the night of the opening ceremonies, I have been so touched by this—people from all corners of globe, embracing their unique cultures, yet all uniting under one celebration of the human body, mind, and spirit. I just keep thinking about how that spirit of unity and peace is stronger than all the global strife we’re bombarded with and saddened by on a daily basis.

Like a good chunk of the world, I’ve put a part of my life on hold to watch the Olympics. I’ve cheered for athletes and teams. I’ve marveled at the skill of Simone Biles, the superhuman speed of Usain Bolt, the apparently timeless excellence of Michael Phelps.

But what has struck me during these Olympics, more than any other, is how at its best, it can transcend sport and become something a little more. Something that unifies  us all a bit, as corny as that may sound.

It’s been a tough, disheartening year or two for a lot of us, I think. We’ve dealt with wars, revolts and rising tensions around the world. Here in the United States, we’re still struggling with so many difficult issues. Politically, we’ve never been so divided. Culturally, it seems, we’ve never been as much on edge.

But then in trots the Olympics—a 16-day breather where we see people of every race, nationality and creed embrace each other after a hard-fought competition. Where teammates root for each other in the midst of their own loss and disappointment. We hear them talk about their family and faith, watch them cry for joy, even if they didn’t make the medal stand. We see people pick each other up. We see them encourage each other on.

The Olympics are far from perfect, of course. We’ve seen a lot of friction in these games as well. You know the stories as well as I do.

But as far as I can tell from my couch, those moments are the exception, not the rule. And to me, the example we see during these Olympics gives me a little bit of hope that we, too, can pick ourselves up and move on to a better place.

We may trip along the way. We may fall. Bad things happen. But sometimes those bad things can lead us to better places. Sometimes we don’t need a gold medal to win.