I fall for it every time. The Parade of Nations that is one of the main features of every Olympics Opening Ceremony never ceases to fill me with the sense that we human beings, for all our flaws, have the capacity to celebrate all of us, including our diversities and our similarities. Even if it’s just for a few fleeting hours, it is still a thing a beauty, filled with joy.
A record 206 countries, plus a Refugee Olympic Team, are represented at the 2016 Olympic Games that officially got under way Friday night. That’s a lot of countries. That has to be a good-news story. Brazil is hosting a Games that brings together over 11,000 athletes to compete in an extraordinary range of sports. Both highly paid professional athletes and financially-struggling amateurs compete for the prized Olympic Gold Medal in their various sports. These Games includes many, many athletes who toil in relative obscurity, at great personal sacrifice, to become among the best in the world in their sport and to be chosen to compete for their country.
For American viewers, NBC apparently shortened the 3-hour long parade of nations at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in the belief that people would be bored and tune out (and not watch their ads). Happily, in Canada the entire Opening Ceremony was easily accessible – and in real time. As always, for me it was a bright spot of inspiration and hope in what has become a world with altogether too little of either. In my view it was the overwhelming highlight of the ceremonies, although I give Brazil full marks for producing an opening ceremony that cost 10% of what London and Beijing spent on their opening ceremonies and was just fine, thank you very much.
If we can just put aside for a short period of time the terrible problems Brazil is struggling with, perhaps we can embrace that sense of hope.
If we can put aside for a few hours – maybe even for three weeks – the scourge of corruption and cheating in international sport, especially with the ruling sports and Olympic federations, perhaps we can embrace that sense of hope.
If we can put aside for a few hours the current vitriol and divisions within the political process in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere, perhaps we can embrace that sense of hope.
If we can somehow manage to put aside the conditions of horror under which many countries are living right now, ravaged by civil wars, perhaps we can embrace that sense of hope.
Many emotions were evoked as the athletes marched in, alphabetically (according to their names in Portuguese) by country and often in spectacular national dress. The contrasts between countries were immediately front of mind. Just think about it. The parade starts with Greece by tradition and then in come the “A”s: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, and Azerbaijan. It ends with Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Virgin Islands (BG), Virgin Islands, (US), Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (and then Refugee Team and the host country of Brazil). Wow, what a statement about the variety in our world.
There were many sobering moments. There was a small team from Syria, not all of whom support the same side in their civil war, and yet somehow they managed to work together to train for this momentous opportunity. There was also a small team from Libya, where there is no formal government at the moment.
There was a team from Israel … and also a Palestinian team, who received a loud ovation. There was a team from South Korea … and one from North Korea! There was a first-time entry from the new and war-torn country of South Sudan. And, of course, there was the Refugee team, which received the largest ovation except for the home team of Brazil.
There was story after story of the personal challenges individual and team athletes had to overcome in order to compete at this world-class level. There is war, there is strife, there is discrimination, and there is poverty. Yet these athletes persevered. And the pride on the faces of every athlete at being there and competing for their country was clear, including the highly-paid professional athletes. It’s a special time. It’s a time of personal triumph and joy. We owe it to these athletes to put aside our cynicism for these few weeks and celebrate their successes, which for many of them is the once-in-a-lifetime achievement of having participated in the Olympics for their sport, their country, and themselves.
I understand that the reality is something far less than everyone coming together and loving one another, all because of the beauty of sport. I get that we haven’t reached that ideal, not even close. But what a treat to see a stadium filled with the flags and national dress of athletes from every corner of the world, coming together for a common purpose. Let’s live in hope. Let the Games begin!