While the Olympics are an international athletics competition much like Wimbledon and the World Cup, there are inspirational stories of such heroic drive and persistence that make the Olympics unique. Here are five stories from the London Olympics that truly define the spirit of the Games, serving as a source of hope and inspiration for all.
1. The Olympics are widely recognized as a gathering of the most elite athletes in the world. Incredibly, a member of that elite group of athletes this summer was a double-amputee runner from South Africa named Oscar Pistorius. Because of a congenital disease, Pistorius’s legs were amputated when he was just eleven-months-old. Despite his debilitation and legal battle to prove that artificial limbs did not provide an unfair advantage, Pistorius qualified for the London Games, becoming the first double-amputee to participate in the Olympics.
2. Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang traveled to London in hope of repeating his Athens Olympics world record performance in the 110m hurdles. Tripping over the first of ten hurdles, Xiang landed awkwardly on his ankle, tearing his Achilles tendon. Staring at the hurdles ahead, aware that his dreams had just crashed down with his injury, Xiang decided not to leave the race early but to hop to the finish line. Xiang took a single break en route to the finish line in order to kiss the last hurdle, proving his love and dedication to the sport. Demonstrating his Olympic spirit, Xiang was regarded by fellow Olympians as the real winner of the race, as competitor Balazs Baji of Hungary lifted Xiang’s arm at the finish line. Displaying their respect for Xiang and brotherhood as fellow Olympians, Britain’s Andrew Turner and Spain’s Jackson Quinonez carried Xiang off the track.
3. With 200m to run in the 4×400 relay preliminaries, American Manteo Mitchell’s leg gave out. Knowing that stopping in the middle of his run would prevent his team from qualifying for the finals, dashing Team U.S.A.’s hope for a medal, Manteo refused to stop running; Mitchell ran the final 200 meters not for himself but for his teammates and for his country. After reaching the end of his lap, Mitchell collapsed onto the ground with what was later diagnosed as a complete break of the fibula bone. With Mitchell’s heroic willpower, the U.S.A. team qualified for the finals and won a silver medal.
4. One of the 4×400 relay athletes who benefited from Mitchell’s refusal to quit despite a broken leg was none other than Team U.S.A.’s Closing Ceremony flagbearer Bryshon Nellum. At a Halloween party in 2008, Nellum was mistakenly identified as a gang member and shot three times in the leg. Fighting for his life, Nellum had greater concerns than the end of his previously successful athletic career. While doctors performed three successful surgeries to save Nellum and allow him to regain the ability to walk, Nellum was dismayed to hear doctors say he would never again be able to run competitively. Well, the silver medal Nellum now proudly wears around his neck tells a different story.
5. In London, runner Sarah Attar, and fellow Saudi judo fighter Wodjan Shahrkhani, became the first female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics. While Saudis believe that women playing sports violates their culture and tradition, the International Olympics Committee overturned the Saudi Arabian ban on female participation in the Olympics in an effort to improve gender equality. While Saudi girls will aspire to follow in the examples of Attar and Shahrkhani, the Saudi nickname for the women – “Prostitutes of the Olympics” – proves just how far Saudi Arabia must progress before accepting female athletes. With Attar and Shahrkhani leading the way, however, the IOC will be able to reach their goal of creating an international athletic competition with total gender equality.
These athletes keep the spirit of the Games alive, reminding us that the determination and heart derived from representing one’s country can lead to physical feats athletes would never otherwise dream of achieving.