Games Without Frontiers

Like so many people I’ve been talking to these past two weeks, I am a complete Olympics junkie. You can only guess what has been occupying most of my nights for the past two weeks. For me, though, the experience of this year’s Olympic Summer Games has been missing something, and I struggled early on to figure out what it was.

And then I realized one night, the day after Usain Bolt’s amazing win in the men’s 100 meter race, that his medal ceremony was the very first time all week that I had heard a national anthem for a country other than the U.S. or Great Britain. “The Jamaican National Anthem,” I cried with glee. And suddenly, I knew what I was missing.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic games, he did so with an understanding that nations that meet in battle on the sporting field would develop relationships with one another than might make them less likely to meet in battle in war. Athletes are sent representing their country of origin and asked to be in community with their colleagues from all over the world. Spectators are afforded the chance to marvel when people from other nations excel at their sports.

The world sat transfixed as Usain Bolt ran at these Olympics. It mattered very little whether one was Jamaican or not—his speed and ability were worthy of admiration. Similarly, I imagine people all over the world looking on in wonder as Gabby Douglas flew above the uneven parallel bars or as Rebecca Soni set a world record (and then broke it again the next day).

And while the United States did win a whole lot of medals at these games, the “Star Spangled Banner” was not the only anthem to be played in London. It was marvelous to see Usain Bolt singing along to “Jamaica, Land We Love.” I would have loved to see some others. Kazakhstan’s for example (did you know it was played six times at these Olympics?)—a web search for their anthem turns up the fake one from “Borat” more easily than their actual national song.

Maybe, just maybe, we could have learned something about these amazing athletes and the countries they call home, too. What was it like being the first women representing Saudi Arabia? We missed a golden chance to interview the two people who could have answered that question. How do the people of Malaysia feel about winning a diving medal for the very first time? Or the people of Grenada about their nation’s first medal ever?

Maybe we could have found out how the wars our own nation has fought for the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed the lives of the athletes from those nations. Or learned from Japanese athletes about their country’s recovery from natural and nuclear disaster. Perhaps we could have developed some compassion for athletes from places where poverty and disease run rampant, where many people don’t know the source of their next meal, or simply where millions of dollars are not available for athletic training programs.

“Do you remember when Jim McKay did the coverage and they used to do a piece about an athlete from another country and something about the place they lived? It was a great way to learn about the world,” my friend Patricia wrote on my Facebook wall this week.

Yes, Patricia, it was a great way to learn about the world. It was a great way to break down the divisions we humans put up so often. It was a great way to cross the borders of difference and understanding. It was a great way to move us one step closer to the Olympic ideal of world peace, where nationalism is reserved for silly games and not war.

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