Tuesday, 21 August 2012 21:25

London 2012: Sports and Social Change at the Olympic Games - Final Thoughts

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But beyond the USA's successes, there were other women who made headlines. Saudi Arabian runner Sara Attar became the first woman to represent her country in Track & Field, following closely behind week one's appearance by Saudi Judoka Wojdan Shaherkani. While many shared the point of view that this was a major step forward for a nation that has harsh laws in place that limit women's rights and freedoms, still others felt this was merely an empty gesture that won't have the impact necessary to make change. Only time will tell, but change is a slow process. But sometimes a single moment in time can be the catalyst.

At the age of 23, Meseret Defar already owned an Olympic gold medal, six World Records and the title of World Champion. And at the Summer Games in London, she added another Gold in the 5,000m, edging out her teammate and rival Tirunesh Dibaba. But for all of her Track and Field success, what moves her is the opportunity to give it all back. Defar serves as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund, and has been known to donate her World Record bonuses to children's charities. “I want to help children who are in need and do not have a chance to make their dreams come true, and if I can help in some way I am satisfied.”

Dibaba, herself the Gold Medalist in the 10,000m at these Games and the current World Record holder in the 5,000m and 15km, found a cause that resonates deeply in her country. She supports a voluntary counseling and testing program for HIV/AIDS, which has ravaged Ethiopia. "I hope my status helps so many to be aware of this dangerous disease," she said. And her status helps greatly to get the message across - Dibaba's wedding was a national celebration, including a parade in front of over 500,000 people. This is an athlete who realizes that success on the track has given her a chance to deliver a life changing message.

Team USA's female athletes also showed how they've used sports as vehicle for their own personal change. USA Track & Field athlete Kellie Wells openly shared her story with NBC about overcoming abuse and rape, and how her athletic career has become a place of solace and tool for her own personal growth. And Cyclist Dotsie Bausch battled Anorexia as a young model and found bike racing as her tool for change.

What was equally as impressive as the standout performances of women at these games, was also the presence of openly Gay/Lesbian athletes and their successes. The folks at OutSports.com did a great job of tracking the daily progress of all the "Out Athletes" and featured the nine medals won. Only a few weeks prior to the games, Team USA Soccer player Megan Rapinoe came out and led her team in that amazing semi-final match against Canada. And some kudos have to be given to NBC for airing a segment on openly gay Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, Gold Medalist from Beijing 2008.

For the British, there were also moments of "social change" on display, especially on the track at the Olympic Stadium. Team GB runner Mo Farah lifted the crowd - and the BBC announcers - out of their seats, winning the 10,000m and later returning to take Gold in the 5,000m. The fact that Brits were openly rooting for a Somali immigrant named "Mohammed" wasn't lost on the media, as NPR ran a great piece titled "It's a Win for Multiculturalism." As if that wasn't enough, one of the country's other faces of the games, Jessica Ennis - of mixed race, with a Jamaican father - took Gold in the Heptathalon. Along with Long Jump Gold medalist Greg Rutherford, they made Britain's "Super Saturday" a day to remember from these games, and also a moment of reflection on what truly makes someone "British."

At the same time, Somali athletes are still facing extreme challenges in a country ravaged by war. Just getting to London for the games was an adventure and their desire to compete and better themselves is at the root of the Olympic ideals. Even stars in the music world rallied to help the Somali athletes with the dream of competing in these games. There's much work still to be done throughout the African continent, but there are signs that change is happening and sport can continue to be a vehicle to drive it.

David Rudisha, World Record holder and Gold Medalist in the 800m, was not the first Kenyan to win Gold at the Olympics. The Kenyans have a long and proud tradition of distance running greatness. But Rudisha's victory brought together the Kalenjin and Kikuyu ethnic groups, which are deeply rooted in conflict and tension. IPS News wrote: "On the night of Rudisha's win ethnic rifts melted, and it was not uncommon to see men and women from the Kalenjin and Kikuyu ethnic groups, the two main rival groups in the country's 2007 post-election violence, dancing together in jubilation."

Much like in Britain, this is a moment in time that "can" lead to change. A sociology lecturer from the University of Nairobi talked about the possibility of capturing and maintaining this moment of goodwill: "In the case of Kenyan athletes, if this power of sport can be prioritised and tapped, Kenya would be able to bridge these ethnic divisions which in any case are equally triggered by minor differences." Again, sports sits at the center of a moment of true social change.

Not far away, the nation of South Sudan still struggles for identity as the world's newest country, a fact not lost on Guor Marial, its only athlete, who ran the marathon for South Sudan under the IOC Flag. Marial is a South Sudanese refugee who lives under asylum in the U.S. but was unable to run for this country without being a citizen. He also refused an offer to run for Sudan, saying that 28 members of his family were lost in the brutal civil war and he "cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people." Although he competed under the Olympic flag as an independent, he said his run was really for South Sudan - a moment that will not be lost on a nation given a great opportunity to be seen and heard on the biggest global stage.

Also heard loudly on the world stage was Team USA's presence in basketball, on both the men's and women's side. Not a surprise to most, as both teams were heavy favorites to win gold. And although the gap in international competition continues to shrink, these were without question the two dominant teams in their respective tournaments.

But what may have been missed was a statement made by their jersey manufacturer, Nike. The Team USA jerseys worn by both teams throughout the Olympic Games were made from recycled plastic bottles. This is a unique process that Nike and several other apparel manufacturers have been developing for the past few years, that offers performance, cost savings and great environmental message. If that's not enough "Green Basketball" for you, the Stratford Basketball Arena that housed all of the Olympic Basketball games was built with over 20,000 square meters of recycled plastic.

We can look back on these games and remember great athletic achievements, memorable individuals and moments, and a time when the world paused and watched our cultural melting pot come together in the spirit of peace and competition. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are on the horizon and the wheels are feverishly turning in Rio to get that city ready for the next Summer Games in 2016.


I'll leave you with one final image - was "sports and social change" on display at the the 2012 Olympic Games in London? You betcha...


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