Historic wins, heartwarming stories and gold medal glory in Beijing.
In 2022, there aren’t a great many things which unite an American public increasingly divided over every imaginable issue, event and topic in the world. Even the most innocuous subjects have become verboten, taboo and even unmentionable in polite circles.
Most Americans don’t feel comfortable expressing their political views in public anymore; not at work, not online, not even at family dinner. Family dinners, of course, have become one of those new formerly-tranquil political minefields.
“How to Deal With Your Politically Inconvenient Neighbor,” and, “How to Successfully Argue Your Point in Time for Pie,” and, “Confronting the Deplorable At Dinner” articles have become more popular than recipes during the holidays.
Americans are divided- more and more sharply it seems- over everything from how to properly behave at family dinner (“It’s inappropriate to discuss politics at family dinner,” versus, “It’s inappropriate not to discuss politics at family dinner.”) to television commercials to the NFL to hamburgers.
COVID19 has, as it often does, made everything so much worse. Add to that the rising tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, and our political environment has seldom been so toxic, if ever.
A list of the things left and right can agree upon these days would be a shorter list. Very few things unite us, and even many of the things which once united Americans have become politicized and tainted by bitter partisan politics.
The James Webb Space Telescope- that deep space explorer many times more powerful than its predecessor Hubble- is one such unifying tie. Around the world, students of all ages, budding astronomers, astrophysicists young and old, and general science nerds of every description have been raptly watching the progress of Webb during the long months of COVID19.
Thanks to the joys of the internet- and a Flickr channel with more high-resolution photos than any student of rocket science could dream- watching Webb from construction to launch to infinity and beyond has been a rare ray of unifying sunshine during the darkest days of peak covid.
A brand new, highly diverse, multinational community has been bonded together by the James Webb Space Telescope as elementary school students and NASA scientists alike wait in eager anticipation for the first photos Webb sends back to earth from a million miles away.
Besides science, sport has also historically been a tie that binds and unifies.
In 2022 sport- sadly, like everything else- has suffered from higher and higher degrees of politicization and polarization. Even the Olympics this year, usually something Republicans and Democrats celebrate with equal nonpartisan furor, has been overshadowed by controversy and division.
From the choice of location to COVID19 restrictions, the story of the Winter Olympic Games 2022 has been told askew. It is a funhouse image of what has really been going on in Beijing over the past weeks as the world’s best and brightest athletes have competed for gold medals and glory.
The story of the Olympics isn’t the history and human rights record of the host country. It isn’t the story of corporate sponsors, or political statements, or left versus right.
The story of the Olympics is, as it has always been, about the athletes.
This year’s crop of competitors have, like everyone else living through COVID19, had even more challenges than usual.
Imagine, training your whole life, working, sacrificing your money, time, and talent. Imagine the sacrifice the families of Olympic athletes have to make; it takes a lifetime of training to make it to the top.
Then, imagine it all torn away during a global pandemic. Would-be Olympians have a small window; for too many, it was closing during a critical time in their careers.
As a result, the athletes who have competed this year have done so with a particular intensity which demonstrates better than anything else how much they love their sport, how hard they’ve all worked through so much uncertainty to get to Beijing, and how much they want to win.
A talented and diverse group, U.S. Olympic competitors at the games this year have in particular soared to new heights of performance and championship, setting records and scoring medals for the home team.
U.S. olympian Elana Meyers Taylor officially became the winningest Black female competitor in Olympics history when she won the bronze medal in the two-woman bobsled event yesterday.
Her win, which Meyers Taylor called “overwhelming”, added to previous medals in 2018, 2014, 2010 and one last week in Beijing.
“Hopefully it just encourages more and more Black athletes to come out to winter sports,” Meyers Taylor told reporters. “We want everybody to come out regardless of the color of your skin. We want winter sports to be for everybody, regardless of race, regardless of socioeconomic class. I think the more diversity we have, the stronger our sport can be. So hopefully this is just the start of more and more people coming out and trying winter sports.”
29-year old Erin Jackson became the first Black American woman to medal in Olympic speed skating when she took first in the women’s 500m race on February 13.
According to Jackson, she won much more than a gold medal: “If, for example, one young Black girl happened to see me out there racing and winning a gold medal…if one girl can be inspired by that to go out there and maybe chase her dreams- whether it’s in winter sports or anything in general- then I’d call that a win.”
Jackson was also the first American to win the speed skating event since way back in 1994.
Jackson’s gold medal is also a story of friendship, sportsmanship and camaraderie: Erin Jackson almost didn’t make it to the 2022 winter games. After taking a fall during the trials, she came in third and didn’t make the cut. Her teammate, Brittany Bowe, finished first.
Bowe, before even leaving the rink that day, promised to give her spot to Jackson.
“In my heart, there was never a question that I would do whatever it took, if it came down to me, to get Erin to skate the Olympics,” Bowe said of her decision. “No one is more deserving than her.”
Bowe’s faith in her teammate paid off for the U.S. olympic team and for the hopes of young aspiring olympians everywhere.
With this kind of inspiration, unity and example at the Olympic Games; with the bright lights of Brittany Bowe, Erin Jackson, and Elana Meyers Taylor to guide them, the next generation of U.S. olympic athletes is sure to give us all a reason to cheer- together.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)