by Dale Reeves
The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, just concluded a year later than it was supposed to. Because of the global pandemic, there were no family members of the athletes and no fans in attendance—only other athletes, coaches, and support team members. It made for a very different Olympic experience. This summer there were over 11,000 athletes representing 206 countries who competed, vying for 339 gold medals in 33 different sports. At the 32nd Olympiad in Tokyo, I enjoyed watching several new sports that debuted on the world stage for the first time—including sport climbing and skateboarding. This year set a record for the most nations who earned gold, silver, or bronze medals. Ninety-four countries took home medals this year, with Turkmenistan, San Marino, and Burkina Faso winning Olympic medals for the first time ever.
As is true in every Olympic year, there were a number of incredible human-interest stories, comeback stories, stories of perseverance, thrills of victory, tears of happiness, and tears of sadness. It was heart-wrenching to witness the athletes who had just competed in their events, and see them get to greet their families who were watching from home, sharing the joys of their victories on screen together though they were thousands of miles apart. This year will be remembered as the year that highly-decorated gymnast, Simone Biles, brought mental health to the forefront, the year that American swimmer Katie Ledecky added her seventh gold medal in her third Olympic appearance, and the year when 35-year-old sprinter Allyson Felix surpassed Carl Lewis in capturing her eleventh Olympic medal—the most in U.S. track and field history.
A Win Win
These were all great moments to witness, but the one that captured my attention above them all was this moment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjSCT97GSsA
The last time an Olympic track and field gold medal was shared by two individuals was back in 1912. At the conclusion of the men’s high jump event in this year’s Olympics, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi were tied, having both cleared the height of 2.37 meters (7¾ feet). Both competitors did not have a failed attempt until they tried to clear the 2.39 meter mark. After three failures each, they were even Stephen, and they spoke with an Olympic official, who first offered them a “jump-off” to decide the winner of the gold.
“Can we have two golds?” Barshim asked the official.
The official nodded, the two high jumpers looked at each other—and they didn’t hesitate for a moment. The two athletes made the decision immediately, they clasped hands, hugged each other, and whooped for joy. Tamberi, the Italian, leaped into Barshim’s arms in sheer glee as if to say, “We are the world! After the last year and a half, I am glad to even be here competing with you. We know how hard we both worked for this, the sweat equity we put in, the sacrifices we and our families have made. Yes, we’ve both dreamed of standing on the podium alone as the highest human jumper in the world, but I am thrilled to join you today and stand united as gold medal winners.”
Tamberi knew something about overcoming adversity to share this gold medal. Just before the 2016 Rio Olympics, he suffered a severe ankle injury. His doctors questioned his ability to return to competition after the injury. As a reminder of his remarkable comeback, Tamberi brought his ankle cast with him and set it on the track at this year’s Olympics. He has kept the cast for five years. He was forced to watch the Rio Games. When his cast was taken off, he wrote on it, “Road to Tokyo 2020.” Then, he crossed out 2020 after the pandemic led to a postponement and wrote in red, “2021.” Tamberi remarked, “I said to myself that day, ‘I want to be back in Tokyo and I want to fight for the gold medal.’”
Of course, on Twitter and in the media, a debate ensued, from those who knew nothing of the adversity that had been overcome. Was this gesture in keeping with the true Olympic spirit of friendship and solidarity, or a “farce,” as some questioned? One writer commented, “They should have done the jump-off. It’s an Olympic final, not a tea party.”
Of More Worth Than Gold
Three years ago after the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, of Portugal, commented:
“The Olympic spirit is the most important symbol of peace in today’s world. . . . It allows people to be together from all over the world, to respect each other, affirming the values of tolerance and mutual understanding.”
This past year and a half we have witnessed so many gestures of just the opposite in our country and in our world, on TV, and in our social media feeds—harsh accusations of blame from one political party to another, various narratives in the media that promote division and strife, finger pointing and divisive ploys seeking to advance individual self-serving causes. Just the opposite of a collective spirit of solidarity, seeking truth and peace based on God’s desire for his human race. And the isolation so many folks have had to live with has only added fuel to the fire.
The apostle Paul talked a good deal about the need for unity and harmony based on the truth of God’s Word. He instructs us, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:16-18, ESV).
An Olympic gold medal weighs six grams, and at current metal prices, it is worth about $820. As the Italian and Qatari shared the gold medal for the high jump this year, Mutaz Essa Barshim commented, “We are here today sharing this moment and all the sacrifices. It’s really worth it now in this moment.” The gold in those medals has never been of more worth than in what we witnessed in the high jump this year.