By Brad Herzog, author of the Count On Me: Sports series
When I think of the late, great Muhammad Ali, what springs to mind is not the “Thrilla in Manila” or the boasts of a pugilistic poet or even a man who paid a price for his principles. And it’s not a young Cassius Clay, having just won the heavyweight title, shouting, “I shook up the world!”
It’s the image of a middle-aged man shaking.
During the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, four-time gold medalist Janet Evans handed the Olympic torch to a mystery person who would have the honor of lighting the flame. Then, Ali emerged and stood with the torch in his right hand, quivering from Parkinson’s disease. As Sports Illustrated put it, a “primal roar washed over the stadium.” Here was a man—arguably the most compelling athlete in history—who could have shunned the spotlight as he battled the disease. Instead, he chose to tell the world, as he always had, “This is who I am. Accept it.”
That’s my favorite thing about the Olympics—the tales and performances that reveal character. By watching the games with our kids this summer, reading about them, and discussing them, we’re enlightening our kids in the best way I know how—education disguised as entertainment.
Obviously, there are macro lessons to be learned when the world gathers for peaceful competition—from the cultural diversity of the parade of nations to the wonderful juxtaposition when those same athletes mingle as one during the closing ceremony. This year, refugees from several countries will compete as part of the first refugee team. Each surely has a remarkable story, and those individual stories are what makes the games so special.
The five rings on the Olympic flag are said to symbolize the five parts of the world whose athletes compete in the games. But they could also represent the five character attributes celebrated in my Count on Me: Sports series—sportsmanship, courage, perseverance, teamwork, and generosity.
Sometimes character is on display in the lead-up to the games. In 2000, two American best friends—Kay Poe and Esther Kim—were set to meet in the finals for the Olympic fencing team trials. Only one would go to the Sydney Olympics. Poe was higher ranked, but she injured her knee in the final seconds of her semifinal match. Her coach had to carry her to the mat for the final bout against her pal. Kim surprised everyone by forfeiting the match to her temporarily injured friend. “I wasn’t throwing my dreams away,” she later explained. “I was handing them to Kay.”
Pay attention to the stories of Olympians, and you’ll encounter jaw-dropping examples of courage and perseverance. Algeria’s Hassiba Boulmerka was criticized and harassed by many Muslims in her home country for “running with naked legs in front of thousands of men.” She won a gold medal in 1992 and became a national hero. Lopez Lomong was kidnapped by soldiers at the age of six and forced to fight in Sudan’s civil war. But this former Lost Boy later became a U.S. citizen, a track star, and an Olympian. At the 2008 opening ceremony, his teammates chose him to carry the American flag.
Courage can mean track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos risking wrath and punishment to raise their fists in protest on the medal stand in 1968. Or gymnast Kerri Strug pulling off a gold medal–winning vault with a badly injured ankle in 1996. Or even tennis Hall of Famer Billie Jean King taking a stand for equality and respect by leading a delegation to Sochi two years ago, soon after Russia had passed a law threatening gay rights.
Perseverance? How about Wilma Rudolph, who for several years as a child was unable to use her left leg after contracting polio. Her three gold medals in 1960 turned her into a track and field legend. Or speed skater Dan Jansen, who won the gold in 1994 after overcoming repeated, heartbreaking falls in previous games. Or distance runner Marla Runyan, who in 1996 became the first legally blind American Olympian.
And let’s not forget the Paralympics, scheduled for Rio in September, where every story inspires. Take the tale of Oksana Masters: She was born with various birth defects, abandoned at an orphanage in Ukraine, and then adopted by a heroic woman from Buffalo, New York, who guided her through several surgeries. In 2012, Masters won a bronze medal in rowing. For good measure, in 2014, she won two more medals in cross-country skiing.
So the Olympics and Paralympics are far more than just global competitions. The games feature people as paragons, achievements as metaphors, runners and rowers and wrestlers as role models. In fact, many of them practice what Muhammad Ali once preached: “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
Brad Herzog is the author of more than 30 books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including articles for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons. Visit his website at bradherzog.com.
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