Olympic athletes reflect the best in us

Every four years we look forward to the Summer Olympics. It’s nonstop entertainment for two and a half weeks. The Olympics inspire all of us, from elite athletes to kids learning how to swim to grandparents bicycling on the Interurban. The athletes of the Olympics send a powerful message to all of us, to exercise and challenge ourselves to do better, run faster, to be our best — regardless of skill. No matter if we are kids, teenagers, adults or elders.

This year, more than 30 Olympians have strong ties to Washington state. Take Seattle native Queen Underwood, who will be boxing in the first women’s boxing ever in the Olympic games. Back in 2003, Queen, an unemployed pipefitter, walked into a boxing gym for the first time. She has never looked back. Queen is so respected in international competition that the Irish boxer who defeated her on points in the 2010 world championship lobbied to have her chosen for the Olympics.

Then there is Jarred Rome, who went to Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He was a football player who took up discus after getting injured. And he can throw — regularly tossing the 4.5 pound disc more than two-thirds the length of a football field!

He is joined by four-time Olympian Aretha Thurmond, who started throwing the discus at Renton High School, winning three state titles. By Olympic standards, she and Jarred are no spring chickens – both are 35 years old. They have dedicated their lives to sport, and a solitary one at that. Aretha has a son, and is on the Board of U.S. Track and Field, making sure the next generation of kids can find their way to their own Olympics.

Marysville-Pilchuck track standout Haley Nemra is also going to the Olympics to compete in the 800 meters. Marti Malloy from Oak Harbor is competing in judo. Track cyclist Jennie Reed from Kirkland is a favorite on the track.

We have swimming stars, like Nathan Adrian from Bremerton who has already medaled in the 400-meter relay. We watched Tyler Farrar from Wenatchee in the bicycle road race. Our athletes are exceptional. They couldn’t have gotten to the Games without talent, years of hard training, and personal sacrifice. But not one of them could have made it entirely on their own. They are also lucky to have received support, encouragement, and commitment — from parents, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, great coaches and teachers — to guide them in their journey to the Olympic Games. Those people — parents, sisters and brothers, neighbors, friends, coaches, and teachers — are the quiet heroes among us.

As Americans we can be proud of our Olympians. They come from all walks of life, incomes, and races. Some are immigrants, like Bernard Lagat who grew up in Kenya and went to school at WSU. Some are the sons and daughters of immigrants, like Nathan Adrian, whose mom is from Hong Kong, and Haley Nemra, whose dad is from the Marshall Islands. Our athletes show the strength of America.

But we should remember what the Olympics are all about. By the end of the games the U.S. should be at or near the top in the medal count. That’s objective. Or is it? It might make more sense if the medal count was done on the basis of population. After all, the U.S. has about 80 times the population of Norway. Or perhaps we could compare countries and athletes according to per capita income. Then you would see Kenya and Jamaica soar in the standings.

The Olympics is not just an opportunity to show our strength and prowess at multiple sports. It’s an opportunity to reach out to other nations and learn about the world we live in. It’s a complicated world filled with intractable problems and conflicts. We get two weeks to reach out and rise above these conflicts. Good for the athletes to remember, and good for us.

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). He can be reached via email at john@eoionline.org.

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