Scott Fowler

In world full of strife, Olympics offer life-affirming respite for all of us

A worker puts the finishing touches on the Sambodromo archery venue in Rio de Janeiro on the eve of the opening of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
A worker puts the finishing touches on the Sambodromo archery venue in Rio de Janeiro on the eve of the opening of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. AFP/Getty Images

In a world that seems to grow more uncertain and violent with each passing day, do the Olympics even matter anymore?

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Brazil arrive Friday night, with drums pounding and samba dancers writhing. But all those bright colors won't hide the fact that the Olympics do sometimes seem antiquated, with noble ideals that are too often unreached.

The problems are manifold here in Rio, and most of them are a lot bigger than the little mosquitoes whose spread of the Zika virus has caused a public health emergency in Brazil. Over the years, the Olympics have seen corruption. Terrorism. And, of course, numerous doping scandals -- the most recent one so significant that more than 100 Russian athletes have been banned from these Olympics.

And yet every four years the Summer Olympics manage to capture our hearts all over again, mostly because of the athletes. It is those athletes with their stories of struggle and triumph who supersede the inevitable list of monstrous problems faced by the host city. Once the torch is lit and NBC starts running all the joy and the tears in slow motion -- it gets me every time.

I would argue we need the Olympics more than ever these days. Many of us feel beaten down by the daily dose of nastiness that shows up in our news feeds. In today's uber-connected society, it's hard to get away from it. Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin of Charlotte was so worried about giving himself negative mojo that he stayed away from all the news entirely during the Olympic Trials last month.

"I made a conscientious effort to tune out," said Ervin, who at age 35 is one of the older and more thoughtful Olympians that you will ever meet. "Because it's almost all bad news, isn't it? The world stage, politics, terrorism - the world just has a lot of problems."

No one would debate that point. Alternately, no one should be naive enough to believe the Olympics will solve all those problems in one giant, worldwide Kumbaya singalong.

But sports can help people get along at any level - whether it's the Olympics or T-ball.

‘Athletes don’t divide themselves’

These will be the sixth Olympics I have covered for The Charlotte Observer. I keep volunteering because the Olympics remain one of the top two or three sporting events I've ever witnessed.

One of the things I like most about them is the genuine wonder expressed by many of the athletes, most of whom will never make much money in their sport but who nevertheless always talk about walking away from the Games far richer for the experience.

"I go in the dining room three or four times a day every time I'm there," said Zimbabwean star swimmer Kirsty Coventry, who moved to Charlotte to train two years ago and is about to participate in her fifth Olympics. "You go in there and the athletes don't divide themselves. They talk to each other. You're in the Olympic Village together, with 200 countries worth of athletes, and everyone is respectful of the different cultures, backgrounds, religions and sports."

Tavis Bailey, the U.S. discus thrower who grew up in Kannapolis and went to college at Tennessee, has never made an Olympic team before this one. He can't wait to put on a jersey with "USA" on the front.

"When you have on your country's uniform," Bailey said, "it doesn't matter how rich or how poor you are. Sports can bring some peace to any country in the world. It gives us all something to bond about -- something to concentrate on outside of the negative."

Michael Phelps, who has won more medals than anyone in Olympic history, will swim in his fifth Olympics in Rio. Phelps will also be the flagbearer for the U.S. team. You would think the Olympics would be old news to him by now, but Phelps can get star-struck and was a little bit when he approached tennis star Novak Djokovic to ask for a picture in the Olympic Village the other day. He knew it was all right to do so when Djokovic made eye contact with him.

"I looked at him," Phelps said, "and we gave each other the nod and smile."

Swimming for her life

While Phelps and Djokovic will be among the most recognized and richest Olympians in Brazil, most of the 11,000 athletes from 200 countries toil in anonymity. Ten of them will provide one of these Games' best stories, as the International Olympic Committee has formed a first-of-its-kind "refugee team" to compete under the IOC flag.

Syrian teenager Yusra Mardini is one of those 10 refugees. It was only 11 months ago that Mardini found herself in the icy Aegean Sea, trying to push a sinking boat that was overcrowded with 20 people to sanctuary before everyone drowned.

Mardini, her sister and two others had to leap in the water and push the boat toward Greece and a new life in Europe.

"We were the only four who knew how to swim," Mardini told the Olympic News Service. "I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and a half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like...done."

Mardini, 18, almost certainly won't win a medal. But, she said, she hopes to show the world that "refugee is not a bad word."

Those are the sorts of stories the Olympics are about, the kinds of stories that ultimately can overcome the garbage in Rio's water.

A number of athletes skip the Opening Ceremony, especially those who will compete in the first couple of days. They often cite the concern that they don't want to be on their feet too long shortly before competition.

"That's a load of rubbish," countered Coventry, the Zimbabwean swimmer. "I've done the ceremonies and then been able to win medals the very next day."

She’s deeply involved in international Olympic governance as an athlete representative and has many opinions on how the Games could be run more effectively and fairly, but she never tires of the sports themselves and what they symbolize.

"You have this adrenalin, the excitement, the flame getting lit and everyone being nice," said Coventry, who will be Zimbabwe's flagbearer Friday night. "It shows that we all could be good to each other. We really could."