The ancient Olympics showcased warriors and their skills. The modern Olympics, Paralympic games and Special Olympic games prove people not only survive injury and disability, they can thrive.
The first Olympic games I remember well were held in Munich, and they are remembered more for terrorism, death, and grief than athletic greatness.
My memories of later games fell into awe at people who truly were faster, went higher, and were stronger, but I had an automatic feeling that my country should excel, Communist countries should fail (both because of rumors of doping and because the games were part of the Cold War), and I should consult an atlas so I could learn about far-away countries discovered through their athletes.
For the past few Olympiads, I have enjoyed athletic greatness, worried about large-scale cheating, and wondered whether I had any Facebook friends in countries with participating athletes. For me, at least, the politics has thankfully receded.
I think much more about an athlete’s history than country. I enjoy watching historic firsts. I dream there will be more universal feeling, more camaraderie among athletes and fans, and more peace than memory of military skills or reality of the Olympics as a form of war.
I watched a British movie called “The Best of Men” recently. It focused on a refugee doctor during World War II who brought his skills to Britain, the country that gave him safety. Once there, he revolutionized medical care for the wounded with spinal injuries.
Instead of keeping patients sedated and “comfortable,” he challenged staff to see each as a potential survivor who could live again, even if differently. At the end, when he held a competition for wheelchair-bound athletes at his hospital in parallel with the London Olympics of 1948, I realized the film was based on truth.
The men who not only survived but lived again as full people in wheel chairs were the pioneers of the modern Paralympic games. The Paralympics were born from war, but as a means of hope and inspiration for the people who survive being caught in violence. The difference between survival and living, let alone challenging the best and deepest of one’s abilities, is not far-away for me.
My life changed forever after a major head injury, later by major spinal surgery. I do not have visible signs of disability, but my body is never going to be what it was, either. The Paralympics move me every time as I see people who have themselves been forever changed and have come through that storm not just as survivors, but people who live, thrive, and compete as the best of themselves.
My son was born with autism and other medical challenges. He has known the self-discipline, thrill, and comradeship of competition in the Special Olympics. I have seen a young man who as a child was a major fall risk (and whose happy smile will always be one tooth shy of a mouthful because of a fall) beam with happiness after running track, even though he was slow and awkward and wears his experience as layers of scar on elbows and knees (one reason why I was happier with helmeted horseback competition, but he wanted to try track as a teen, and he did).
The Olympics reminds us of human ideals, as well as the diversity of athletes who push themselves to excellence in familiar and unfamiliar places. This year’s games remind us that war is real in many parts of the world, but we can learn two things at least from watching refugee elite athletes compete.
First, the human spirit is universal. It often emerges stronger from tragedy. War, developmental disorders, life’s injuries and diseases, all these things can prove the fire that tempers us and our loved ones. Once we are tempered with resilient strength, we can grow and help people in ways we never imagined. We can become the best of men and women. That is the Olympic ideal. In our way, we can each find Olympia within ourselves and one another.
Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman