Getting a Grip

Don’t look now, but the Olympics have been scandalized.

Forget green water in the swimming pool. Never mind the athletes robbed at gunpoint. Doping worries can wait until another day. We have bigger fish to fry. We have – gasp! – two athletes who held hands in a race.

I’ll pause while you recover from the shock.

For those who missed it, a pair of twin sisters from Germany finished the Olympic marathon side-by-side – literally. Finding themselves far out of contention for a medal and near each other as the race wound to a close, the two joined hands and crossed the finish line together.

To some, this might be heartwarming. To Germany, it was controversial, if not outrageous.

“It looked as though they completed a ‘fun run’ and not (an) Olympic (race),” German Athletics Federation director Thomas Kurschilgen told the press, accusing Anna and Lisa Hahner of hijacking the moment for their own glory. The two finished 15 minutes behind their best pace and 21 minutes behind the leader.

Because you know, if you want glory and universal acclaim, finishing in 81st and 82nd place is the way to do it.

I can understand some of the reservations. People train hard to get to the Olympics. It’s a huge investment in time, money, and personal strain. When you reach the Games, you’re in an international spotlight, committed to pushing for the best that you can be.

And yet, the Games have always been about more than the score.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” the Olympic creed begins. And while there have been breathtaking performances in the Games, the gestures that burn in the memory are often ones that never go in the record book.

They may be inspiring moments like runners Abby D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin helping each other up after a collision and fall. Or shocking ones, like the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with an Israeli competitor. They may bring attention to a cause, a personal struggle or triumph, or simply to their own shortcomings.

That too, at its greatest and its worst, is part of the Olympics.

How you take part matters.

Granted, that’s Kurschilgen’s point, too. And if he wanted to push them for not pushing harder, that has been every coach’s and athletic director’s prerogative since time began.

But let’s take a breath. The two didn’t try to sabotage their competition or chemically enhance their own bloodstream. They didn’t spout racial epithets or enter the final mile carrying a McDonald’s banner. They didn’t pull something stupid that would endanger other runners or themselves, or throw away a winning position.

Instead, whether by coincidence (as they insist) or design (as Kurschilgen maintains), they finished the race in a gesture of sisterhood and friendship.

And really, isn’t that what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about?

With some high-profile exceptions, our memories of Olympic athletes tend to fade when it’s all over. We remember the abbreviated ski jump of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, for instance, without knowing a thing about what happened to him later. The odds are good that four years from now, or eight, or 16, most people won’t remember the names of the Hahner sisters – they’ll just remember, maybe, “those sisters that held hands across the finish line.”

That’s pretty weak for a (possible) self-promotion.

But for an Olympic memory, it’s not a bad one to have at all.

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