By the time this article goes to print, the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will be over. What we can take away from these Games?
In the days leading up to the Olympics, I learned about some of the athletes and their journeys to the games. How do you become a world-class winter sports athlete when you’re from a hot climate?
Akwasi Frimpong was born in Ghana but left as a child to live with his mother in the Netherlands. He excelled in track and field and became the Dutch national sprinting champion. His illegal immigrant status and later injuries impacted his running career, however, so next he tried bobsledding. He decided to give back to his native country by establishing the Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation of Ghana. He qualified for the Winter Olympics as Ghana’s first skeleton slider.
Skeleton is a daring sport in which the athlete slides along an icy track at up to 90 km/h while lying face down and head first on a small sled – not something a nice Jewish boy’s parents necessarily envision for their son.
Just a few years ago, U.S.-born A. J. Edelman had a dream of representing Israel at the Olympics. An MIT graduate in mechanical engineering, he left his job in high tech, made Aliyah, and excelled in several sports before becoming Israel’s four-time national skeleton champion and Israel’s first-ever Olympic skeleton slider.
I sent a message of best wishes to Edelman, adding that he is an inspiration to Jewish children.
“Greetings from Korea,” he replied. “Your words made my day.”
Everything starts with a first and that’s when possibilities transform into reality. In total, six countries participated in the Winter Olympics for the first time. Several countries, such as Kenya and Madagascar, sent females athletes for the first time. Eighteen countries had just one athlete in their contingent. Imagine the pride and pressure of being the sole representative of your country.
There were some new events at the Games – mixed doubles curling, long-track speed skating with a mass start, big air snowboarding and mixed team alpine skiing – proving that the possibilities for sport are limited only by the imagination.
All athletes have to persevere to make it to the Olympics, but one athlete who particularly inspired me is Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris who recovered from a near-fatal accident last year, made it to the games and won a medal. Of course, watching the Canadian Olympic athletes doing what they do so well – from curling to figure skating to hockey – inspires Canadians young and old to envision possibilities for themselves, whether in competitive sports or just for fun and fitness.
The United States had its first-ever openly gay male Olympians, freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon. They were not only out, but outspoken in the media against LGBT-discriminatory policies espoused by the U.S. vice-president. Possibilities mean different things in different countries depending on the level of freedom afforded to its citizens. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, homosexuality remains punishable by death.
Several Muslim-majority countries, such as Lebanon and Morocco, participated in these Olympics, but Iran was the only participating nation that legally requires women – of all faiths – to wear hijabs. While watching the Iranian team in the Parade of Nations, I thought of the women in Iran who are being jailed and sometimes tortured for publically removing their hijabs to protest this symbol of oppression.
Though sports and politics are not supposed to mix, it’s difficult to separate them. North Korea sent a delegation to the Olympics. The women’s hockey team from North and South Korea played as a united team and an athlete from North Korea and an athlete from South Korea carried the Olympic torch together. One can only wonder – and history will tell – whether this was a genuine olive branch extended by North Korea’s brutal and murderous dictator or simply propaganda. The North Korean team was monitored 24/7 by its chaperones. Any defections would likely result in the severe punishment of the defectors’ relatives back home, such as a one-way trip to the infamous concentration camps.
The 2018 Winter Olympics offered many firsts. While some hopes and dreams were realized and some were shattered, it’s the possibilities – perhaps more than the medals – that we remember long after the Olympics are over.