As the Summer Olympics in Rio reaches its midpoint, we have already witnessed several competitive milestones. From Michael Phelps winning a record-setting 26 medals, to Serena Williams’ stunning defeat, to the USA Men’s Basketball Team decision to stay on a yacht instead of the Olympic Village due to concerns related to Zika, Rio 2016 has had its fair share of intrigue.
But beyond those headlines, we have been treated to equally compelling stories involving less prominent figures. Fencer Ibitihaj Muhammad, for example, captivated audiences even before she arrived at Rio as the first American Olympian to wear a hijab. And 41-year-old Uzbek Oksana Chusovitina has garnered attention as the oldest gymnast to ever compete at the games. While both of these individuals may not have the financial resources of Phelps, or the endorsements of Kevin Durant, Oksana and Ibitihaj represent something truly special that the Olympics brings to the fore: the ability to pursue significance in front of the eyes of the world.
The word “compete” is derived from the Latin word competere, which means “to strive together.” While our current understanding of the word “compete” has a combative undertone, its original formulation seems fitting as we watch the world’s greatest athletes perform at their best alongside each other.
At the Olympics, athletes from across the globe can strive together; not for money, fame, or league contracts, but in the pursuit of showcasing the kind of excellence that can be attained only after a lifetime of dedication. Amid the stumbling blocks—a green pool, dirty water, and a less-than-stellar Olympic village, to name a few—Rio 2016 has shown glimpses of unity and humanity. The following inspiring examples offer a glimpse of the legacy this year’s Olympics will leave behind.
In what has become one of the most widely discussed images of Rio, gymnasts Lee Eun-Ju of South Korea posed with Hong Un-Jong of North Korea in a selfie taken during a practice session. Despite the decades of tension and conflict with its southern neighbor, North Korea has offered to form a joint athletic team with South Korea for three of the past five Summer Olympics Games. In fact, according to foreign affairs expert Michael Madden, the selfie represents a prolonged effort by the North Korea to explore sports-related diplomacy. To watch competitors embrace is an uplifting experience, but to watch citizens of long-time enemy states come together reveals the best kind of competition, or striving together, the Olympics has to offer.
In a profound Olympics moment, U.S. swimmer Lilly King wagged her finger at Russian-born swimmer Yulia Efimova during the 100-m breaststroke semifinals, calling her out for her history of performance-enhancing drug use. While many have applauded King for her “shaming” of Efimova, others have have suggested that King’s actions were, if not inappropriate, somewhat flippant. No matter, the move suggests we now live in an era of radical transparency, where how we behave matters more than ever. At the Olympics, athletes must not only strive toward excellence, they must do it in the right way.
The Olympic Games consistently make it clear just how connected our interconnected and interdependent our world has become. Nowhere in this year’s competition has this fact been more apparent than in the Refugee Olympic Team. In a powerful symbolic gesture, the Olympics not only granted a group of refugees from four different nations status as a team, it also banded them together under their own flag. In doing so, the International Olympic Committee signaled that the games in Rio would represent something more than just a contest among nations. The Olympics is a showcase of humanity’s finest competitors—citizens of the world—who have the opportunity to strive for something that transcends political divides.