Greg Cote

Why do the Olympics matter? It has nothing to do with records or gold

Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa made a statement about the slaughter of the Oromo people in his country.
Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa made a statement about the slaughter of the Oromo people in his country. AP

It feels sometimes like the world is rending at the seams, coming apart by degrees. The news is full of civil war and genocide, border conflict and hatred, the growing rampage and reach of terrorism. It can seem at times almost as if civilization itself is under attack.

What is wrong with us? What does the future hold for babies being born into these times?

It is in this context of overarching global concern that the Olympic Games – not as much the actual competition as the idea of them, the symbolism of them – are more important than ever.

Google the phrase “abolish the Olympics.” There is no shortage of proponents. Many believe their time is past, that the Games have grown archaic, been devalued by doping scandals or have become too unwieldy and financially suffocating.

There are shades of truth to the criticisms. I mean, here was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, beset by political scandal, rampant crime and economic collapse, spending way more than it could afford to host the 2016 Summer Games, plowing a nature preserve to build an Olympic golf course in a country that isn’t big on golf. Doesn’t make much sense. Not real logical.

Then you watch the Opening and Closing Ceremonies that bookend the Games, and it starts to make sense again. You see that the Games, more than ever, are bigger and more important than whatever city plays host or whatever country wins the medal count.

You understand that, in a world coming apart, the Olympics work the opposite magic. You see the parade of nations, 206 countries in this case, all embracing the common ground of sports, all agreeing on something moving in the same direction, from the United States with its 558 competing athletes to Tuvalu, a tiny Polynesian island nation, with its lone Olympian, a sprinter named Etimoni Timuani.

The nations and their athletes parade separately to open an Olympics and then together en masse to close them, more symbolism of coming together for a planet that needs that so desperately. The Olympics represent the world’s last common ground.

This is no panacea, of course. If only. The world sings “Kumbaya” for two weeks and then goes back to fighting. Plenty of competing nations in Rio (North Korea, Russia and Iran come to mind) are seen as enemies or at least seen warily by the United States.

It is not nothing, though. The Olympics at least offer a commonality, a reason to come together, a platform for hope. It is sports in the context of the real world, not head-in-sand hiding from it.

An Ethiopian runner named Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line with his wrists crossed above his head, as if handcuffed, to protest his country’s ethnic slaughter of hundreds of Oromo people.

Fencer Ibtha Muhammad became the first American Olympian to compete wearing a hijab, speaking afterward about hoping to break down stereotypes of Muslim women.

This year a first-of-its-kind Olympic Refugee Team competed, consisting of 10 athletes of an estimated 65 million persons living in limbo worldwide, displaced by war or other turmoil.

From John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising firsts in a black-power salute at the 1968 Games to today, the Olympic spirit has always meant not just effort and sportsmanship, but also protest and raising awareness. It has been about real life.

The Olympics always are about more than who wins and by how much.

The U.S. in Rio won the most overall medals and the most golds. Michael Phelps feathered his legend. Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles were stars born. Swimmer Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual event.

But some Olympic heroes never make it to the medal stand. Like New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin, who gave up her chance at a medal during 5,000-meter qualifying by stopping in the midst of the race to help a fallen opponent.

Yet it is the lapses in sportsmanship — as when U.S. soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo embarrassed herself by calling the victorious Swedish team “a bunch of cowards” — that get so much more attention than the quieter gestures of kindness.

Solo was outdone in the Ugly American category only by maturity-challenged swimmer Ryan Lochte, who hijacked headlines for two or three days when caught in a lie to coverup his and three teammates vandalizing a gas-station bathroom in Rio.

But just as we hope the gold-medal greatness and nourishing examples of kindness always outshine the controversies and breaches of sportsmanship, we understand there remains something about the Olympics even greater than gold.

It might be mostly symbolic, and it might be for only two weeks, but the Olympic Games give the world a reason to come together.

More than ever, that seems like a very good thing. Like the ultimate Olympic ideal.