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Lessons from Rio

As this year's Olympics in Rio comes to a close, my kids are disappointed. It's been a lot of explaining about the 2 year interval until the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. And then the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The Games haven't been a constant in the background, but very nearly as each day we watch on either the television or the tablet. It's become a welcome friend and teaching aid to us. They eagerly await results and watch with enthusiasm. They'll miss it.

For grownups, Rio 2016 has come to serve as a lens for viewing all the socio-political problems of our world. The (mostly overhyped) Zika threat, the poverty (any city will have poverty), the wisdom of spending money on rotating Olympic hosts...especially in nations who may be struggling financially like Brazil. We've had racism on display from criticism of African-American gymnast hair to a debate over bikini vs hijab. But we've also seen black athletes thrive where they never have before. And we've had swimmers cause an international incident over a fabricated robbery, vandalism, and lying to the police. As adults, we've come to debate the very notion of success and the philosophy of competition. Are we happy to crush our sworn foreign enemies or do we cheer at the bonds formed that go beyond any national borders? Has Rio been a positive force in a summer that is otherwise full of sturm und drang? Or is it just another thing for us to argue about? The doping. The refugees. The athletes who have to find subtle ways to break the rules and take advantage of the precious little time they have to cash in on their fame and success.

The kids care about none of this.

For them, Rio has been a celebration of sport. And not in the overly aggressive, stereotypical, ethically challenged way that most American sports operate. This is not a celebration of multi-millionaire celebrities who are elevated to undeserved status. This is a celebration of, in many cases, real heroes who work in relative obscurity 99% of the time. In some cases, as with Gwen Jorgensen winning the triathlon yesterday, they didn't dream about this since they were 5 years old. They stumbled into an opportunity they've made the most of, worked hard, and earned their reward through dedication and practice. All while raising a family. There's a life lesson in there.

My children have watched the big events. Gymnastics. Swimming. Track and Field. But we've also , spent time watching things they didn't even know exist: archery, judo, fencing, rugby, volleyball, rowing. It's been an exercise in mind expansion as they learn about people interested in things they never ever dreamed. They've seen bodies come in all forms. All skin tones. All nationalities. They're happy to cheer their own country, but amazed that someone from far off Romania or Australia or China could be so good at something so specific. For my daughter, especially, she's watched heartbreak and the thrill of victory as women run and jump and throw and kick and sweat and get honored. My son is seeing the wide variety of things he can excel in during a key period of growth where cultural pressure is going to tell him that his worth is tied to being good at "typical" sports. He's seen sportsmanship and what both winning and losing gracefully looks like.

It's all powerful. And we don't talk about it enough in our sports-obsessed society. Athletics force us to look deep within ourselves, be uncomfortable, overcome obstacles, think ahead, learn teamwork and strategy, try to understand our opponent (whether that's the clock or a physical person), and become a better person tomorrow than we are today. It's something that both the dominant sports paradigm and anti-sports crowd fails to account for in the ongoing debates about the importance of sport to our physical and mental well-being. Sports are no measure for human worth, but they reveal so much about us as people that it's hard to imagine a world where we didn't challenge ourselves via physical competition.

I'm happy seeing my kids watch adults who are comfortable with their bodies, their particular activities, and the excitement of performing one's best.

Citius, Altius, Fortius!


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