The 2016 Olympics in Rio came and went with the usual bevy of political and social troubles — though in fairness, the games have been tainted with controversy and poor sportsmanship since their inception in ancient times. Brazil, like most Olympic hosts, will no doubt continue to endure the economic and political repercussions, and such problems should not be discounted.
But for all those issues, I think it is worth looking at the bad with the good, and thankfully this year’s Olympics had plenty of touching milestones worth appreciating. Consider the following:
Brazil’s first gold in the Olympics went to 24-year-old Rafaela Silva in judo. She had been disqualified in the 2012 games in London for an illegal maneuver, and was subsequently met with a torrent of awful social media commenting attacking her African heritage. Her victory not only redeemed her loss, but served as a hopeful example to the tens of millions of Brazilians who, like her, were born into poverty and face institutional discrimination.
Twenty-five-year-old judo star Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo earns her beleaguered nation its first ever gold. Kosovo only recently became an independent country, and it remains unrecognized by the U.N. and most of the international community, in addition to enduring much economic and political strife. Winning gold at the premier global sporting event may not seem like much, but it counts for something to a lot of nations in need of any reason to celebrate. As the BBC reported:
Clearly emotional, Kelmendi, 25, said that even though her country was small and poor, she had proved that it was strong.
“People, especially kids in Kosovo, look at me as a hero”, she said. “I’ve just proved to them that even after the war, even that we have survived the war, if they want something they can have it. If they want to be Olympic champions they can be.”
The United States’ Simone Manuel became the first black female from anywhere in the world to win Olympic gold in swimming; her victory gives hope to the people of color who, for historical and socioeconomic reasons, remain devoid of access to swimming.
India’s first medalist in the game, 23-year-old Sakshi Malik (who won bronze in the women’s freestyle wrestling competition in the 128 pound category), helped start a national conservation about her nation’s problems with women’s rights. According to NPR:
Indians online and off debated the ironies of this first medal in the 2016 Games. Malik hails from Haryana, a state ranked 30 out of 35 for its sex ratio; there are only 879 women per 1,000 men. According to UNICEF and other organizations, the disparity is attributed to the aborting of female fetuses and the killing of female infants. There’s even a bridegroom crisis: Wives are in short supply and are often brought (sometimes illegally) from other states.
The state has a reputation for being notoriously patriarchal. Wrestling and boxing, popular sports in Haryana, are dominated by men. Malik has gone on record to say her family is supportive, but she says she was ridiculed and insulted in the community for taking part in a sport seen as a man’s endeavor and for wearing shorts.
In a similar vein, Iran’s Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin made history as the first Iranian woman to win a medal in any Olympic event, after claiming bronze in the 57-kilogram class of taekwondo. In a country whose government is notoriously discriminatory in its treatment of women — for example, women are not allowed to spectate all-male athletic events in stadiums — her achievement served as a crucial milestone for her countrywomen (and other women living in similar circumstances) to follow.
Singapore got its first Olympic gold with Joseph Schooling’s breakout victory in the 100-meter butterfly. Not only was he the first of his nation to win gold, but he did so in an Olympic record time of 50.39 seconds, besting even the great Michael Phelps.
Throughout the duration of the Games, two celebrity chefs (one Italian, one Brazilian) and their team took edible leftovers that would otherwise have been discarded and created an average of 5,000 meals daily for Rio’s homeless and needy residents. As HuffPo reported, while Brazil continues to struggle with hunger, it has made remarkable progress over the past decades: its rate of malnourishment declined by 80 percent, earning its removal from the U.N. hunger map.
Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui delighted spectators with her energy, good sportsmanship, and cheerful disposition. She looked more ecstatic and grateful winning bronze than most gold medalists, and really enjoyed working the crowd with her antics. That kind of spirit and lightheartedness is as inspiring as it is endearing.
Fijians worldwide erupted in celebration at their nation earning its first-ever gold, none other than in its most popular sport, rugby. The victory is all the sweeter given that they had otherwise bested formidable British team.
Puerto Rico, which unbeknownst to many Americans has had its own separate Olympic team since 1948, also enjoyed the glory of winning its first gold in history after Monica Puig triumphed in women’s tennis. Given the U.S. territory’s many troubles, such an achievement provided a well needed boost to morale.
There were some photogenic moments of Olympic spirit transcending geopolitics:
Star Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who has had one of the most impressive Olympic careers in history, has made clear that all of his subsequent ad shoots must be done in his home country to help bring jobs and opportunities to his people.
In the grand scheme of things, these little moments of achievement and goodwill may not seem like much, but I think it is worth cherishing every glimmer of positivity and amity we can find.