If ever there’s an event that makes the world seem small, it’s the Summer Olympics. This week it kicks off in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, where more than 10,000 athletes from around the world will compete in 28 different sports and 306 events.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, 11 of these athletes have ties to New Mexico, though not all are on Team USA. Competing for other countries and their teams are:
• Three who attended the University of New Mexico—Cameron Bairstow, who will compete in men’s basketball for Australia; Gavin Green in men’s golf for Malaysia; and Jarrin Solomon in track and field for Trinidad and Tobago.
• Three others attended New Mexico State University and will compete in women’s golf—Gwladys Nocera for France; Alena Sharp for Canada and Ursula Wikström for Finland.
• And Anicka Newell, who attended Highland High School in Albuquerque, will compete in track and field for Canada.
Then there are New Mexico’s homegrown Olympians who will compete on behalf of the good ol’ USA:
• From Roswell, Gerina Piller will also compete in women’s golf and Nathan Schrimsher will be in the modern pentathlon.
• Courtney Frerichs, who came to UNM via Missouri, will be in the track and field competition.
• And Jillion Potter, a La Cueva High School (Albuquerque) and UNM graduate, will compete in women’s rugby.
They’re all already winners. They made it to the Olympics.
This isn’t just sports we’re talking about. It’s history, and it often transcends athletics. In 1936, when Berlin hosted the Games, Adolf Hitler’s push for Aryan racial superiority took a hit from a young African-American named Jesse Owens—an omen of things to come, as the Americans would defeat the Nazis in World War II less than 10 years later.
Then there was the Black Power salute in Mexico in 1968, when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air on the winners’ platform, bringing international attention to one of the greatest civil rights movements in American and world history.
And there are plenty of other examples of great struggles personifying themselves at the Olympics: The attack and hostage-taking in Munich in 1972 against Israeli athletes killed 11; the African boycott in 1976 heightened tensions over South Africa’s apartheid; the American boycott in 1980 brought attention to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But more often the better side of humanity has made its way into the Olympics. Women first competed in the 1900 Games in Paris, with only 22 female athletes in five sports among 997 total competitors; since 2012, women compete in every sport in the Games.
And in 1960, some 400 wheelchair athletes went to Rome to compete in the “Parallel Olympics,” which became the Paralympics of today, and where more than 4,300 athletes will compete in 528 different events in Rio.
This is where you see the human spirit at its best. The drive to be, not just better, but perfect, in the athletes’ chosen disciplines, will be showcased for more than two weeks, with incredible backstories adding to the intensity of the moment.
Take Albuquerque’s Jillion Potter, for example. Just two years ago, this rugby player was diagnosed with Sinovial Sarcoma, a cancer that affects the joints of the arms, legs and neck. She underwent chemotherapy, and now, there she is, about to compete in the 2016 Olympics Games. She’s not just a survivor. She’s a conqueror.
Years ago, when our daughters were young, I remember my Japanese wife—who couldn’t have cared less about all other sports, despite my best efforts—would gather with our girls around the television to watch the Olympics, telling us about one athlete or another, and how they got to the Games. That’s a big reason why I don’t just root for Team USA, I root for them all. It’s a moment in time when we’re one world, one people, one effort toward perfection.
Even in the ‘36 Olympics, after Jesse Owens beat German athlete Carl Ludwig Long in the long jump, Long reportedly walked arm-in-arm with Owens back to the dressing room.
“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens would later say. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Long would later die in the war that followed—but his legacy, as does the spirit of the Olympics Games, lives on.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.