The Olympics is always celebrated with a great deal of pageantry, nationalism and achievement.
For all its talk of “sporting excellence,” the media tends to distill everything down to the medal count. (The New York Times’ Olympics 2008 website carries an updated count by country at the top of its page.)
In one of the first events held Saturday in Beijing, Mariel Zagunis of the United States became the first American in a century to win a gold medal in fencing. In fact, Americans won the top three spots in women’s saber fencing.
However, what makes this particular achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that Europeans have typically dominated Olympic fencing since the beginning of the modern games. The three women involved, although highly skilled and competitive, were not predicted to win all three spots.
Regardless of medals, reaching beyond expectations is always a special accomplishment.
“Mariel Zagunis, of Beaverton, Ore., defeated her teammate Sada Jacobson, of Dunwoody, Ga., to win the gold,” the Times reported. “And in the most thrilling bout of the evening, Becca Ward, from Portland, Ore., rallied to edge Russia’s Sofia Velikaya for the bronze.
“The team has been together long enough that the three women have not only become very good friends but have fenced together countless times and know one another’s moves.
‘When we’re on the strip, it’s all business,’ Jacobson said, referring to the competition area. ‘When we’re off the strip, we’re friends again.’”
When sports journalist Jim McKay covered the Olympic Games I would always look forward to a segment called, “Up Close and Personal.” I would watch as McKay would tell a persuasive story focusing on the human aspect of an athlete.
It made little difference which country the athlete was from, McKay was interested in the discipline, determination and courage necessary to get to the Olympic Games. It was that added dimension of back-story that made watching any event all the more significant from a human perspective.
If he were covering the current Games from Beijing, McKay would report the extraordinary wins by the three Americans in women’s saber, but he would have included a compelling back-story about how one or more of these women got there.
While it’s nice to celebrate the medals, let’s not forget to celebrate how all these athletes got there – through discipline, determination and courage; three qualities we can all aspire to in our own lives.