Finding unity in the Olympic spirit

It was a rough July, on a national scale, marked by division: shootings, protests, funerals, conventions.

Whether you tuned into Trump and Clinton, clicked over to the late-night comics or braced for sharp Facebook exchanges, you likely felt a sense of separation - of people moving further apart, digging in their heels and drawing circles around their camps.

"At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together," former President George W. Bush observed at a Dallas memorial service. "Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions."

To reverse this impulse - to trust in others' better intentions and recognize our own bad examples - is the ultimate act of mercy, the virtue we need so desperately this year.

I'm hoping August can provide what July failed to deliver: unity. And I'm banking on the Olympics to give us that lift through 17 days of drama and daring, with more than 10,000 athletes from 207 nations coming together in 306 events. It's time to root for someone who doesn't look or sound like you, to cheer on athletes because you like their story or their anxious mom, because they're young or old, because they're shy or bold, because you can glimpse their spirit shining through.

The beauty of enduring Olympic moments is that they cannot be planned or predicted. They are unscripted. Part of the magic is watching them unfold before our eyes. We follow the athlete with the most hype, while an underdog sneaks up and stuns. A star is born, and we feel part of it because we have given witness to it.

History is replete with golden Olympic moments. They do not require athletic supremacy, though many contain it; they do require a triumph of human spirit. Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila ran a marathon in the 1960 Summer Games barefoot - and won. Hermann Maier, an Austrian skier, had a devastating crash in the downhill competition at the 1988 Nagano Games then returned to the slopes days later to win two gold medals.

Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea had just recently taken up swimming and gained entrance into the 2000 Summer Games through a wildcard for athletes from developing countries. He lost the 100-meter freestyle qualifying race but set a record for his home country, wowing fans with his memorable first swim in an Olympic-sized pool.

British sprinter Derek Redmond tore a hamstring during the 400-meter semi-finals in 1992 and struggled to rise to his feet. His father broke through security to join his son on the track, propping him up and helping him reach the finish line, which Derek crossed on his own.

Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was expected to medal at the 1988 South Korea Olympics but noticed a competitor's capsized boat amid dangerous winds and abandoned the race to rescue the two injured sailors. After handing them off to a crew, he returned to the race, still managing to beat out 11 other competitors and place 22nd out of 32. He was awarded an honorary medal for heroism.

Ultimately, epic Olympic moments reveal truth and beauty. They stir us to strive for something more.

"Sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man," Pope Pius XII once said, "and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth and helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of his Creator."

Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of sisterstory.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016

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