Lessons from Beijing: Effort counts for a lot

The Beijing Olympics had a schizophrenic start.

The opulent, stunning opening ceremonies provided the kind of magic and awe the Chinese hosts – and the millions of viewing fans – yearned for. Yet violence and political protests cast a shadow. Particularly unsettling was the deadly attack on two American tourists and their guide. That tragedy happened in Beijing where the Olympics are centered.

Those of us looking for the predictable uplift from the Games were in for a wait – but not a long one. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps began his quest for an unprecedented eight gold medals with a win Friday. Italian fencer Valentina Vezzali was carried around by her coach after taking the gold in that event. Japan's Kosuke Kitajima let out a blood-curdling scream at his 100-meter breaststroke win.

It's hard not to get swept up in the exuberance of those celebrations. Their excitement ignites our own. Their competitive spirit sparks ours.

Nowadays, that's an elixir a lot of us need. A lagging U.S. economy, high fuel and food prices, stagnant wages, an ongoing war and a myriad other concerns have overwhelmed us. The dogged determination of these athletes to rise above obstacles and succeed is a beacon.

Sunday night's performance of the U.S. men's 4x100 freestyle relay team exemplified that in stellar fashion. Even with the best swimmer alive – Michael Phelps – the U.S. team was the underdog. The French were considered better and until the end of the race looked good for gold.

But in what swimming experts are now dubbing the best relay race ever, U.S. swimmer and team captain Jason Lezak refused to lose. He out-touched Frenchman Alain Bernard – who'd predicted a French win just hours before. Charlotte's own Cullen Jones swam the third leg of the four-man race and helped secure the win. He helped set two world records in the U.S. quest. His personal story as one of handful of African American elite swimmers is compelling by itself.

So the Olympic spirit remains in fine form. The athletes are setting an example of how to win, and how to lose. They are showing us that adversity is just a challenge to be tackled with determination.

Their example is worth emulating. In life, you won't always come out on top. But great effort will take you a long way.