Throwback Thursday: Triumphs Don’t Always Come in Gold at the Olympics

Every two years, the world sets its gaze on a resurrected Greek tradition, modernized and inclusive of international competition. The Summer and Winter Olympics draw the attention of different people, of different ages, from different countries, with different interests to one arena. As such, the games are the epitome of multiculturalism. This year, 2,862 athletes from a record 88 nations qualified to compete in the Winter Olympics. But what is it that makes the Olympics so special? Ultimately, it’s not really about the medals. Sure, competition is at the epicenter; but, the games have intangible and unequivocal value in uniting the human race. Ironic, yes, but in comparison, everything else is pretty immaterial.

One of the most talked about stories in this Olympics thus far doesn’t involve a winner or even a medal. During the Men’s Sprint Free Semi-Final, Russia’s Anton Gafarov fell several times—breaking his ski in the process. Gafarov knew early on he wouldn’t qualify for the finals, but respecting his sport and his home crowd, the skier was determined to finish the race. So he pressed on, falling and further damaging ski, but getting back up every time. When it looked like Gafarov would have to walk across the finish line, former U.S. Olympian and current Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth ran on to the course to help Gafarov. Despite being from a competing country, Wadsworth shed Gafarov’s broken ski and fastened him into one of the spare Canadian skis, so he could have, in Wadsworth’s words, “some dignity so he didn’t have to walk to the finish area.” Years from now, casual Olympic viewers might not remember who went on to win the gold medal in the event, but it’s doubtful they will forget this show of sportsmanship that’s come to define these games.

During the Olympics, with all eyes on the athletes, sportsmanship has all the power in the world. The act was in some ways reminiscent of Jesse Owens and Luz Long interaction in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Nazi German’s, believing in Aryan rule, scoffed at the U.S. for sending 18 black athletes to represent them (as they believed blacks were completely inferior beings). Jesse Owens, an African American, became the star of the games, winning four gold medals. When Owens faced Germany’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed Long in the long-jump, the world learned appearances aren’t everything. While Long looked like the quintessential Aryan, he approached Owens before the competition, suggesting Owens–who had been fouling on his jumps because he was hitting the line–start his jump early, so the judges wouldn’t disqualify him. He took the advice, and when Owens won the gold, Long—who won the silver—became the very first person to congratulate him. The act was powerful—more powerful than the medal. Two athletes, just through sports and sportsmanship, made the event political. Together, they invalidated Hitler’s Aryan rule and united the human race.

 

 

Back in the States, Owens didn’t even receive the gesture Long extended to him from his own countryman. During the ‘30s, segregation and racial inequality were unfortunate societal norms. Owens could win gold for the U.S., but he still had to sit in the back of the bus when he got home. The President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t offer the historical Olympian a hand shake, let alone publicly acknowledge his feat, but the public did make a big deal that Hitler didn’t extend Owens a hand shake. Sadly, Long lost his life in WWII, fighting a war he and Owens already negated. Owens remained in correspondence with Long’s family. In 1955, President Eisenhower finally acknowledged Owens by naming him “Ambassador of Sports,” and he received the highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from President Gerald Ford in 1976. The U.S. hasn’t been the only one to recognize the power of Owens’s performance. In 1984, four years after Owens’s death, Berlin renamed one of their roads after him.

Perhaps President George H.W. Bush said it best when he awarded Owens posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1990: Owens’s triumphs in Berlin were “a triumph for all humanity.” That’s the true power of the games. The true triumphs don’t come in the form of gold, silver or bronze.

Cover Photo Source: catwalker / Shutterstock.com

Cassandra is a Content Manager and Developer at SJG. She earned her BA from Fontbonne University in 2011. Outside the office, she enjoys an active, healthy and well-rounded lifestyle including reading, writing, running, golfing, watching films, listening to music, taking photographs, and consuming media and social media.