World Asia Pacific

Letter from Pyeongchang: Finding beauty in the Olympic struggle

Spirit of humanity

The attention on medals belies the grander purpose of the Games – and their relevance to a world facing much harder challenges than triple axels or tricks in the halfpipe.

American figure skaters Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim perform in the pairs free skate in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. They finished 15th.
David J. Phillip/AP

Falling is not supposed to be beautiful. 

But there was something in the way that US national champions Chris Knierim and his wife Alexa Scimeca Knierim were skating their pairs long program that I found profoundly moving, despite the fact that they were clearly struggling.

I knew that just being here at the Olympics was a victory for them, after a long illness that left Alexa wondering if she would ever skate again – a comeback she said was made possible by turning her life over to God. But I didn’t know that as they were warming up, images from the Parkland shooting – which had occurred just hours earlier – were playing on the TV in the warm-up room. I didn’t find out until later that Alexa had turned to Chris and told him, “The world is so much bigger than us.”

“I kind of put pressure on myself today because I wanted to honor those who were lost and skate really well for them and kind of have somewhat of a happy moment for our country,” said Alexa through tears, shortly after their performance. “And unfortunately, too many mistakes today, it was one of our lowest scores … Maybe I’m just being too tough on myself but I wanted to lift the spirits of folks who are probably in mourning right now.”

Her compassion and humanity were deeply moving to me, and pierced the shell of skepticism or even cynicism that I’d been feeling at the Games this time around. I had grown up dazzled by the Olympics, sitting in front of our little black-and-white TV, and deeply valued my experience of training for the 2002 Olympics, though in the end I went as a spectator rather than an athlete. Even in 2010, covering the Vancouver Olympics for the Monitor, that childlike wonder permeated my experience.

But after three years reporting in the Middle East, picking my way through the rubble of war and the hatred of centuries – only to return to an America riven by a tribalization of another kind – I found, to my great disappointment, that the Olympics no longer felt magical.

Over the course of three weeks in Pyeongchang, however, I have come to appreciate the Games in a new light. It’s not about magic. Because if it were, it’s true – this exorbitantly expensive sporting stage would have no relevance to our everyday lives, and to humanity’s greater struggles. Yes, I have seen some fairytale endings here at the Games, and they are beautiful and amazing and make grown men cry. I would argue, though, that the real essence of the Olympics is that they show us what it means to struggle: to be willing to fail en route to reaching for something higher – and to have faith that we will ultimately prevail.

And that, I realized, was what I saw in the Knierims’ performance. It was not beautiful despite the struggle; it was beautiful precisely because of the struggle – a victory of the human spirit, if not one recognized by medals.  

“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,” wrote Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. “The essential thing in life is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”

Hence the Olympic motto – citius, altius, fortius. Faster, higher, stronger – not fastest, highest, strongest.

That seems to be often lost in the 21st-century version of the Olympics, which is as much a commercial enterprise as a sporting event.

South Korea’s tab for the Pyeongchang Games is expected to be about $13 billion – including a $109 million stadium that will be demolished after being used for just four ceremonies. NBC spent nearly $1 billion for the broadcasting rights, and thousands of other journalists paid exorbitant rates to live, eat, and work in the Olympic bubble for three weeks. Swiss timing company OMEGA sent 230 tons of equipment – including electronic starting guns, motion sensors, and scoreboards – to Pyeongchang, tested it with “stand-in” athletes, and brought together 300 timekeepers and 350 trained volunteers to run it all. Individual teams also faced expensive bills; just shipping a single bobsled crate to the Games costs about $10,000 round trip, never mind the millions that go into building such specialized equipment.

When so much has been invested, it is understandable that the focus is on quantifiable results. And what is easier to quantify than medals? Especially gold medals. For Olympic committees, national sport federations, sponsors, athletes, and the media, that is the currency of the Games. But the relevance of the Olympics to a world facing so many challenges – historic refugee flows, a brutal seven-year war in Syria, persistent poverty, and many others – is in something deeper. It is in faith, perseverance, and resilience. In determination and grit. In dedication to an ideal, and the tenacity to stick to it. 

In short, it is a championing of the human spirit and its ability to rise above the challenges and disappointments of life on Earth.

I saw it in five-time Olympian Kelly Clark’s grace and poise after finishing fourth in the snowboarding halfpipe, behind two young women whom she had mentored and supported.

I saw it in the finish line hugs and smiles of the US women’s cross-country ski team, which had been dreaming of a medal in the 4 x 5 km relay for years, but never recovered from a 1-minute deficit after the first leg. Their embrace of Sophie Caldwell, who skied a brave but tough opening leg, was a beautiful expression of the team culture that yielded America’s first gold medal in the sport just a few days later.

I saw it in figure skater Nathan Chen’s gutsy performance in the free skate, putting down six quad jumps after a hugely disappointing short program left him in 17th. That comeback underscored his central philosophy: Never give up.

But it was alpine racer Mikaela Shiffrin, the world’s best female slalom skier, who finally articulated for me what I had seen in these athletes, and in the Knierims’ performance. 

“It’s the Olympics, and for me that’s about showing heart and passion as much as it is about medals,” she wrote on Instagram after finishing fourth in her signature event, the day after an emotional win in the giant slalom left her drained. “It’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics. It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze.

“We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when [they] felt both – because we care. That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that.”

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