What We Can Be

I read an article this morning that greatly lifted my spirits. Money is short around here. We work hard and often feel like we’re not getting anywhere. Sometimes it leaves you scratching your head and wondering what it’s all about.

Then you read a story about people like Justin Wadsworth and Anton Gafarov.

To summarize, after a heart-breaking afternoon in which his own athletes were all eliminated early in the Olympic cross-country, Canadian  ski coach Justin Wadsworth was crestfallen and wandered over to watch the end of the semifinal in the men’s free sprint. As he stood there, surrounded by other officials, he spotted Russian Anton Gafarov coming over a rise.

Gafarov was struggling. He’d crashed on a quick downhill corner and broken a ski. Then he had crashed again. A long, thin layer of material had been skinned off of his ski and was wrapped around his foot like a snare. Gafarov wasn’t “skiing” to the finish. He was dragging himself.

“It was like watching an animal stuck in a trap. You can’t just sit there and do nothing about it,” Wadsworth said later.

Justin Wadsworth looked around him. No one was moving. Everyone just stared at Gafarov, including a group of Russian coaches. He grabbed a spare ski he’d brought for a Canadian racer and ran onto the track. Gafarov stopped. Wadsworth kneeled beside him. No words passed between them. Gafarov only nodded. Wadsworth pulled off the broken equipment and replaced it, and Gafarov set off again.

“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Wadsworth, a three-time Olympian himself, said.

Amen. And well done, brother. To me, this story embodies the Olympic spirit, both in Gafarov’s determination even in the face of defeat and in Wadsworth’s kindness, sportsmanship and simple human empathy.

Medals are great, but that’s not the reason I watch the Olympics. For every swaggering braggart, there are plenty of people like Anton Gafarov (an early medal favorite) who are there proudly representing their country, humbled to simply be on that stage. For every media whore who has figured out how to attract the cameras there are people like Justin Wadsworth who never lose sight of what is important in the Olympic games.

The Olympics are about what we can aspire to be as human beings. A cocky 20-year-old on a hot streak is not, to me, the embodiment of the Olympic spirit. The Olympic spirit is a Russian skier who is 3 minutes behind the leaders in his race, who has no chance of winning or getting anywhere near the podium, but is determined to finish his race, even dragging a broken ski. The Olympic spirit is a Canadian coach, whose own skiers are already out of the race and who is having a bad day, who gives that Russian a ski so he can finish the race with dignity.

We should all aspire to be more like these people, and boggle less at the medal winners. It may not last long, but for now these two men have restored my faith in humanity. As I watch the rest of the Sochi Olympics, I will try to keep in mind that for every media friendly finish line and award ceremony plastered all over television and the Internet, there are moments in which people like Justin Wadsworth and Anton Gafarov remind us that it’s not only the medal winners who matter in the Olympics. Humanity is not necessarily represented by the people on the medal podiums, but most often in simple acts of defiance, struggle, empathy and kindness, as represented in the simple act of a Canadian coach coming to the aid of a struggling Russian athlete, without ever being able to share a word between them.

Anton Gafarov and Justin Wadsworth
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