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The spirit of the Olympic athlete
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It’s what’s inside -- the verve; the drive; the untainted grit. It’s the pilot light that never goes out. It’s the fervor propelling an individual to impressive heights. It’s the cause and effect. It’s what makes a person leap over the same hurdles hundreds, thousands of times before ever getting it right. It’s what makes a person perform 25,000 dives a year hoping to get one score that will count forever. It’s what makes a person realize that to win it all, you can’t be afraid to lose. It’s what makes a person defy inconceivable odds over a lifetime merely to play one defining game. It is the passion. It is the win from within. It is the spirit that empowers athletes from all over the globe. It is the spirit of the Olympic athlete.

This spirit can’t be measured in the number of tickets sold (8.8 million); in the number of media present (21,000); in the number of security forces deployed (27,000); in the number of pieces of sports equipment (1 million); or even in the number of medals awarded (2,300). The “Olympic Spirit” is often referred to but is usually vaguely defined. True Olympic spirit is often found away from the gold medalists and accompanying endorsement deals. At times it can be found in its purest form in the athlete who never makes it to the podium. It can be found in the athlete who competes simply for the love of their sport. It resides in the effort, the struggle, the refusal to give up. The Games provide us with an opportunity to celebrate our shared humanity and to express the spirit of sports. The athletes encompass a broad spectrum of backgrounds. They come from poverty; from riches; from political instability; from wars and economic crisis; from superior to resource challenged facilities. But for two weeks, these athletes come together to represent their country and their sport with the highest of dignity. We see normal people doing extraordinary things, and because of this, we are able to see bits and pieces of ourselves in them. Their amazing feats are ripples in the water affecting many. It is present in the kid running high school track who just set his goals a little higher. It can be seen in aspiring young swimmers whose dreams became more real.

The Olympic spirit is best expressed in the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” This spirit can be seen in all the athletes; the ones on the podium and the ones who are not. It lives within the medal winner entirely aware of what got him there, and it lives within the one in last place knowing he fought well and with the loss comes courage.

As these Olympics unfold, among the Phelps and the Bolts, the dream team and the fab five, there are others to watch who embody this spirit. There is the South Sudanese refugee marathon runner who learned to run fleeing for his life from a Sudanese labor camp and hiding in a cave during a conflict that claimed the lives of 28 of his relatives. For another South Sudanese-born athlete, his ability to run days and nights saved his life, and is now running for America. More athletes that epitomize the spirit include the Ethiopian-born Norwegian who trained for London running in sewage tunnels; the American hurdler who grew up hidden in a Salvation Army church; the American woman fighter who survived years of abuse and fought back from drug addiction to become a contender; and more, the first mountain biker to represent Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, who cycles to forget his violent memories of the genocide in which he lost his six brothers to. Many of these Olympic athletes will experience the moment their entire lives have been leading up to. Their guts and tenacity deserve respect.

The Olympic spirit is not something you can time, or score, or even drain for, but every champion has it. It’s the fierce determination that drives these athletes to be the world’s best. So as we watch, we can be inspired by what falls beyond the podium, the medals, the endorsements, the sleek uniforms; inspired from what lies within. Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of guts, sweat, and a special alloy called perseverance.