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by Dr. Daniel J. Heller
In all the buzz about medals and world records, it’s easy for us to lose sight of what the Olympics are really about. But for two Olympians, even while they were in the midst of competition, the true spirit of the games was never far from their minds.
During the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin, an English-born New Zealand runner and American runner Abbey D’Agostino tangled legs and fell to the ground – not an unprecedented occurrence in long-distance running. What’s more uncommon, however, is what happened afterward.
D’Agostino, who popped right up after tumbling to the track, tapped Hamblin on the shoulder, spoke to her, and helped her up to continue running. Both women finished the race, D’Agostino visibly pushing through pain to cross the finish line. Hamblin later described the experience, saying she didn’t know how she tripped, only that she she stumbled and found herself on the ground.
"Then suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like, 'Get up, get up! We have to finish the race!'" she said.
Although they crossed the finish line last – Hamblin first and D’Agostino a few paces after – Olympic officials determined that the women weren’t at fault and allowed them to advance to the finals. But neither of them knew they would move on. D’Agostino, in helping her competitor, gave up her chance of placing better in the race. Hamblin, meanwhile, crossed the finish line in spite of the disappointing tumble.
The kind of self-sacrifice D’Agostino displayed in helping her opponent may seem to go against the spirit of competition, but in actuality, she embodies the very purpose of the Olympic Games. The primary goal of the games, according to the International Olympic Committee, is to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world…in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
The Olympic Games, in other words, are built around strengthening relationships, both between individuals or countries. Indeed, D’Agostino and Hamblin were able to find connection in their shared experiences.
"When you’re at this level, you know how hard it is to get here, so there’s just a mutual understanding of how much everyone puts into it," Hamblin said. "There’s so much more to this than a medal."
This is a lesson many Olympic viewers, and even some of the athletes competing in the games, may not learn. Winning, while exhilarating, is short-lived. Gratitude and connection, meanwhile, can last a lifetime. This certainly was the case for D’Agostino and Hamblin.
"For sure (we have) a friendship now," Hamblin said after the event. "When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that is my story. She is my story."