Unless you’ve been in hibernation, you likely know the 2016 Summer Olympics are underway in Rio. Even folks who don’t normally watch sports watch some of the Games - likely a gymnastics, swimming or track and field event.
But what is it about the summer Games that is so captivating? Is it that they come around only once every four years or that they boast sports we don’t typically see on like synchronized diving and ping pong? Probably not.
For many of us, it’s less about the actual competition and more about the stories behind the athletes.
There are over 11,000 athletes participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics (554 of those from Team USA) and all of them have stories to tell. From archery to wrestling, these athletes have varied backgrounds, talents, and tales of sacrifice to make it to the top of their sport.
Take USA Gymnast Gabby Douglas - the first black gymnast in Olympic history to become the Individual All-Around Champion and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. At a very young age she made the decision to leave her struggling, single mother, three siblings and grandmother to move across the country to train with top coaches. And the most decorated Olympian of all time - USA Swimmer Michael Phelps - overcame an early diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to go on to grab 23 Olympic medals (and counting). His dogged determination and will to persevere motivates the laziest among us. These are the stories that catch our attention.
And there are others.
Like the youngest Olympic athlete in Rio, Gaurika Singh, 13 years and 255 days, is a survivor of the earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people in Nepal in April, 2015. She was preparing to compete in the Nepalese national swimming championship in Kathmandu, when she was forced to take shelter under a table in a five-story office building fearing for her life.
She didn’t get to compete that day - after the earthquake there was no pool left. But she pushed through, completing her training and ultimately making it to Rio.
Like Singh, there are thousands of amazing teen athletes at these Games. And their stories inspire us to cheer as they try to make the podium. One of the nine members of the Olympic Refugee Team saved 20 lives by pushing a boat filled with refugees for three hours. Swimmer Yusra Mardini was fleeing Syria along with her sister and 18 other people a year ago when their dinghy began sinking in the Aegean Sea. Nobody on the boat could swim except Yusra and her sister. The two jumped into cold waters and pushed it for three hours, eventually making land.
Seriously? Who wouldn’t love to see that girl win a gold medal?
All the athletes’ determination to achieve the best they can outlines a way of life; a way of thinking. Their stories generate a sense of independence and character in our own lives.
Like the ancient Greek epics that gave rise to heroes like Achilles and Hercules, our modern day Olympians inspire us to be more motivated in our own lives - at least for the two weeks we watch them.
So for the remainder of the Games, sit back in front of the television and cheer on not only our American athletes, but those from around the world and let the narratives of their lives inspire us to work harder in school, at sports, or on our jobs.