Olympic spirit surpasses medals

Some of my favorite stories of the Winter Olympics have nothing to do with gold, silver or bronze, but rather courage, friendship and sportsmanship; and many of them find us rooting for athletes not necessarily wearing red, white and blue.

n Pita Taufatofua of Tonga carried his country’s flag, bare-chested in the 2016 Summer Games and also in the much colder climate of South Korea, proudly representing his homeland in a sport very new to him: cross-country skiing. I would imagine that it’s nearly impossible to train for a snow event in Tonga, but surprisingly, he didn’t finish last, but rather 114th out of 116 competitors. Inspiringly, he waited at the finish line to meet the final two skiers, sharing with them the accomplishment of competing in the Olympic Games. Now he hopes to have help from the IOC to build an athletic training facility in his homeland, recovering from a tornado.

n Ice skater Aljona Savchenko, born in the Ukraine and competing for Germany, won the gold medal in pairs during her fifth Olympics. The 34-year old credited her “never give up” attitude with her competitive longevity, as a crowd wearing colors from around the globe provided a standing ovation following her final performance with her partner. After a mistake in their short program, the German pair put up the highest score ever in the free skate; a lesson in re-siliency and determination.

n In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, a Russian luger reportedly offered American Chris Mazdzer his own sled in an effort to help the US athlete overcome a slump. In today’s political climate, that is one of the last countries whose athletes you would expect to befriend an American. The sled wasn’t a fit, but the gesture was appreciated; Mazdzer went on to win silver while the Russia, serving a punishment for a doping scandal, competes under the Olympic flag rather than their own.

n And then there’s the home team. South Korea’s athletes have taken home a handful of medals with crowds of adoring fans greeting them like conquering heroes. In one of the world’s hottest spots politically, the cool competition of the Winter Olympics provides a huge point of pride.

I would love to watch the Olympics from the perspective of other countries. While the American Olympic Committee faces questions about why our athletes haven’t won more medals, I imagine many other nations are gleefully celebrating any and all hardware they take home. We are reminded that of the nearly 3,000 athletes competing, a small fraction make it to the podium.

There are always the stories of political statements, hate-speech via tweet, and even the occasional disciplinary action. But most of the athletes from around the world, including the US, are soaking in the experience as the Games begin to wind down, seeking personal bests, unparalleled experiences and memorable moments in an atmosphere of competition, sportsmanship and peace.

Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org.