In 2012, I went to Pristina, Kosovo as part of a delegation from the British Council. To my surprise, the scars of the Milošević era were still fresh. (It turns out that the 1990s were rather recent.) Kosovo had declared independence from Serbia a mere four years before my visit, and Serbia continues to refuse to recognize it as a state. So, when Majlinda Kelmendi won Kosovo’s first Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, it was a big deal.
Puerto Rico was invaded by Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1493 and is now the largest insular territory of the US; Puerto Ricans are considered natural-born US citizens but have excruciatingly limited voting rights. So, when Monica Puig won Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, it was a big deal.
Vietnam was colonized by the French, occupied by the Japanese, and torn apart by a US-led war from 1954 to 1975. If American stories of the Vietnam War are devastating, they are nothing compared to the stories of the Vietnamese. Right now, there is anger over a decision to cancel the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tân. So, when Hoang Xuan Vihn won Vietnam’s first Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, it was a big deal.
65.3 million refugees have fled hell and are out in the world, looking to make homes for themselves and their families. The global lack of welcome and the global lack support for these millions of people is sickening. So, when 10 athletes arrived in Rio de Janeiro and entered the Games as the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, it was a big deal.
When Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first gold medal, when Fehaid Aldeehani won the Independent Olympic Athletes’ first gold medal, when the Sevens Rugby Team won Fiji’s first gold medal, they were big deals.
When Yulimar Roja stood on the podium with a silver for Venezuela, when two Cuban wrestlers beamed the gold around their necks and danced in celebration, when two Brazilian gymnasts wept on the floor and embraced, when the Brazilian men’s soccer team defeated Germany, and when three athletes made it to Rio to represent Afghanistan, I teared up as light faced down darkness. When Flint, MI’s Claressa Shields overcame the odds to reach gold a second time, when Simone Manuel and Michelle Carter broke ground in swimming and shotput, I cried a big “Yes!” for America.
The modern Olympics are known to be passionately and painfully political. This one in particular. Ungodly threats of disease, corruption, waste and terrorism permeated. Yet, for all the grossness involved in this quadrennial ritual of sport, it brought along with it a global connection that is healing.
Together, in nations around the world, we honor the glory of human achievement and those athletes with whom we share our citizenship. We try to dismiss all the nationalistic commercialism and political propaganda; we try to discover new ways to fall in love with our countries all over again — especially at a time when so much seems so wrong. Simultaneously, through the Olympics, we may also succumb to a profound empathy. We can wave one another’s national flags. We can take turns on a pedestal. And, as we return to a volatile world, we can continue to see those who are different from us as champions — as true champions — long after the closing ceremonies recede into memory.
Can art step up, where sport leaves off?