There are very few events that bring our country and the world at large together the way that the Olympics do. The Rio Olympics are a perfect example. In only a few days, the international community has been inspired and enlightened by the examples of some of the world’s best athletes who show us greatness both in their respective sports and in their communities.
With that in mind, here's a few of the most inspiring stories that have come out of the Olympics so far.
The Refugee Team: For some athletes at the Olympics, fighting to participate in the Olympics might have been the greatest challenge in their lives. That’s a great challenge to overcome but not as great as the challenge to survive in war-torn countries.
This year — for the first time in history — a refugee team is competing at the games. Several of these athletes have escaped death. Others have escaped political turmoil. Still, others have escaped life as unwitting soldiers. These 10 individuals show the world that athletes can emerge from even the roughest of circumstances.
In a must-read CNN article about these inspiring refugees, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was quoted as saying that “These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit."
The Can-Do Athlete: Athletic competition can mean putting your life at risk. It can mean engaging in dangerous activities that could end a life at any moment. Jillion Potter knows those risks and she fights on.
Potter is a rugby player who has faced adversity throughout her life. According to the Denver Post, Potter suffered a broken neck in a game in 2010 that could have left her as a paraplegic, then survived a battle with Stage III synovial sarcoma (cancer) in 2014 that could have killed her.” Many athletes would’ve given up with the broken neck. Others would have felt defeated by the cancer diagnosis.
Potter didn’t. Now, she’s in Rio representing the United States as one of the U.S. Women's Sevens captains, an accomplishment that seemed unimaginable a few short years ago.
The Truth-Teller: Representing the United States at the Olympics seems like a daunting task for anyone and it would be especially daunting to do it as a teenager. That’s exactly what nineteen-year-old Lilly King did.
But she did more than even that. She chose to speak out.
King, a swimmer who earned a gold medal at the Olympics, spoke out against doping in the sport. As The Wall Street Journal reported, she said “I think it’s unfortunate that we have to deal with these things in this sport.” As the article noted that comment “was specifically directed at a swimming competitor, Russia’s Yulia Efimova, who had previously served a 16-month suspension for a banned prescription steroid.”
For many, King’s honest comment served as a reminder of the Russia’s doping controversy and showed that this American was willing to stand up against cheating even when it was controversial to do so.
The Leader: When Sarah Attar competed in the London Olympics, she fell behind her competitors and finished her track and field race later than the others. It didn’t matter. She stood on her own.
According to USAToday.com, Attar “was the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in track and field at the Olympics” and “covered in clothing from head to toe… [her] debut came five days after a Saudi judo athlete became the ultraconservative country's first female competitor at any Olympics.”
Attar is back for this year's Rio Olympics.
According to The Washington Post, she's the daughter of a Saudi Arabian father and an American mother. She lives mostly in California but has spent time in Saudi Arabia where —during a routine jog in 2011 — she dressed as a male to avoid harassment (it didn’t work). Despite incidents like that, Attar has pressed on pushing her country to accept her as the tremendous athlete and leader she is.
The Icon: Michael Phelps is an undeniably gifted Olympian. He has more Olympic medals than anyone in history but that doesn’t mean he’s without his own personal demons. A person witnessing Phelps’ iconic rise over the years might believe that Phelps isn't as vulnerable as the rest of us.
You would be wrong if you thought that.
In fact, Phelps has gone through a lot since his last games. According to an ESPN.com profile on the athlete, he “was so distraught two years ago, struggling to figure out who he was outside the pool, that he drank heavily and wondered whether his life was worth living.” Despite people believing he had everything a person could ever want, he still struggled. But he bounced back.
He entered into treatment after multiple DUI arrests and after finding a greater purpose by reading Rick Warren’s famous bestseller, he reportedly “earned the nickname Preacher Mike because each day began with a chapter of ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’ a book given to him by former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and good friend Ray Lewis.” The book brought him a renewed sense of faith and courage and his story of coming back from such a low point could serve as an inspiration to us all.
Can’t get enough of the Olympics? Click here for a list of some of the best films about the Olympic Games.