Olympic fever has taken over much of the world. Millions of us watched the opening extravaganza that featured everything from milkmaids to men operating machinery, dancing nurses, Voldemort and music. Lots and lots of great music.
The Olympian idea of fair competition and sports-uniting-all is a wonderful concept and for a moment there we bought into it. As we watched 200 some groups of people proudly and excitedly parading into the stadium behind their countries’ flags it was nearly impossible not to be seduced by the fun and wonder of it all. All these proud faces, waving and smiling at all and sunder, portrayed such similar emotions that strife and slaughter suddenly seemed silly.
Who cares that it took 116 years before all teams had female competitors? They are here now and gender equality must be fact in 204 countries. Forget about the controversies about who is going to wear what during a competition, strict rules on sponsorship logos and regulations of what athletes were allowed to say on their personal social media outlets; obviously freedom and equality for all is the new reality. What does it matter that some nations fielded delegations of hundreds of athletes while others only managed to enter five because their funds are limited, their population is starving or wars are raging within their borders? It was a heady moment where wonderful things seemed possible. As David Bowie sang as the UK team arrived: we can be heroes.
Unfortunately the unity that is touted as being part of the Olympic spirit is only a national uniform deep. What we do at the Olympics is compete. Not as a way to pass the time, in good humour and brotherhood, but to win. Sure, there are bronze and silver medals on offer but, as pointed out to me, gold is the only one that matters to those who are competing. No athlete trains for hours a day, for years at a time, to be happy with second place. At some future date, a silver or bronze medal will look good on the wall of an office or bedroom, but reaching second place is not what anybody dreams of when they get up at dawn to run, swim, fence, shoot or whatever else they do. Bowie said it well in the second line of his song: just for one day.
And besides the individual competitiveness, there is the larger scope that winning a medal is also for your country. Nations watch their athletes compete in disciplines they did not even know existed and experience a rise in national pride as medals are won by people they had never heard of the day before. For a short moment in time athletes become national ambassadors and when they succeed, headlines at home will proudly state ‘we won’.
Rooting for your team is nothing new and most of us do it during major sporting events. It was fun to watch Egypt come together, in a way that is normally only reserved for football, to cheer on Alaaeldin Abouelkassem as he fenced his way to a silver medal. For a moment there ‘they won’ and they could be heroes, together with Abouelkassem. How long we will remember him remains to be seen, daily troubles soon encroach on the moments of shared victory and besides a celebratory homecoming I would not be surprised that Abouelkassem will soon return to wherever it is he so successfully emerged from.
In those moments, where the country around me remembers again they are all part of a uniting common denominator, Egyptians stand proud and tall. They are heroes, and if they could only remember how that silver medal made them feel, they could prove Bowie wrong.
They could show compassion for those who suffer in poverty and of injustice. They could have tolerance for those who adhere to another religion. They could stand up against sexual violence and demand respect for women.
They could be heroes, for more than one day.