Before every Olympic Games, there exists a continuous, inevitable stream of negativity and doomsday forecasting: facilities, security, pollution, doping, economics, corruption, health concerns and transportation snafus. The 2016 Rio Olympic Games are no different in that regard.
It is not my directive with this piece to recount the negativity. It is my directive to recount the personal, truthful and positive ways that the Olympic Games have helped to change the world.
The ancient Olympic Games began in the 8th century B.C. in Greece, and immediately changed the Panhellenic world by creating a truce between cities that would just as soon weaponize a Trojan horse than call a time-out in their conflicts. In fact, the concerns of the ancient world weren’t much different than those of the modern world, save, perhaps for pollution. But once the Olympics began, peace ruled, and new heroes were created.
Rebooted in 1896, the modern Olympic Games are not a sporting spectacle. Indeed, one might say that sport is the Trojan horse of the Olympic Games. What the Olympics are is a worldwide cultural movement that unites the collective attention of every continent of planet Earth, under the guise of sport. It celebrates human achievement on a basic level and in a way that no other sport, cultural or political event can do. And for more than 100 years, it has been a harbinger, and sometimes the catalyst, of social change.
Sport of any kind has always been at the forefront of providing opportunities for people who often lack broader rights or respect in society at large. For women, athletic competition in the Olympics has invariably preceded social improvement in any country. Women first competed in the Olympic Games in 1900, two decades before the 19th Amendment granted female suffrage in the United States.
But the Olympics have had a far more visceral effect in other countries: Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco became the first Muslim woman to win a gold medal in 1984, in the 400 meter hurdles. Educated at Iowa State, she is a council member of the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, where she is a strong voice for women’s equality. African women won their first gold medal in track and field decades after their men, but their equality on the track helps lead advancement at home.
More than 50 years before Martin Luther King Jr. led substantive social change in U.S. race relations, John Taylor in 1908 became the first African-American man to win an Olympic gold medal. The stand that Tommie Smith and John Carlos took in Mexico City, in 1968, retains a potent cultural impact that transcends national boundaries, from Oceania to Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. They are heroes everywhere.
During the games, children around the world are exposed for the first time to countries of which they had never previously heard. Kids who might only know the United States, Canada and Mexico see Djibouti, Cote d’Ivoire, Andorra, Netherlands Antilles, Gabon and Estonia. Even more spectacularly, athletes from these countries compete on an equal playing field with those who comprise the G-8. Faster than Usain Bolt can reach the finish line, children’s geographical minds are expanded, if not blown.
Much like the ancient games, the modern games tear down borders, if only for two weeks. The tears of victory shed by a Lithuanian wrestler move viewers just as much as the exploits of the Fierce Five. The backstory of a 10-year-old refugee is more meaningful to the world that watches than that athlete’s silver medal, won 20 years later.
Through the games, the people of the world are able to see what is possible when socioeconomic, political, gender and racial barriers don’t exist. When you see what is possible, you can change the world.
In providing that peek into the possible, the Olympic Games have changed the world by reminding us, every four years, of our shared humanity. Even in times when that human bond seems at its most tenuous, it emerges as the flame alights during Opening Ceremonies.
At USA Track & Field, we like to say: “Athletic achievement moves us all.”
Humanity united; humanity moved as one. Now that is a positive change.
Jill M. Geer is chief public affairs officer for USA Track & Field. She is a former sports writer and columnist. Rio will be her sixth Summer Olympic Games.