A Brush With Greatness

With a toothbrush in her hand, Missy becomes the next great Olympic marathoner.

“EIGHT! And we’re beginning to hear the sounds of the runners ahead … NINE! We can just barely see the pack … TEN! They’re drawing closer … ELEVEN! OK, we’re catching the runners at the back of the crowd …”

The commentary is from yours truly, counting off how long Missy has to keep brushing until she’s done. The count gives her a goal, the “race” makes it fun. Boy, does it – more than one sprint to the finish line has ended with a laugh of glee and an impulsive hug that would light up every camera at NBC if it knew.

We’ve done this as cars, as bicycles, even once as airplanes, but the track-star version seems to be the favorite. Despite her disabilities, Missy is a very competitive person, and this seems to get her where she lives. The ordinary mixed with the glorious.

Which actually isn’t too far off from the Games themselves.

It’s been fun watching London. At every moment, we get images of the fastest runners, the most agile gymnasts, the creepiest mascots. The best of the best are on display and all we have to do is drink it in and cheer.

But let’s be honest. It’s not the sports that do it.

OK, quick poll. Everyone who watches water polo more than once every four years, raise your hands.


How about judo?

Oh, I know there’s some. And that’s great. And the marquee sports – basketball, soccer, boxing and so on – certainly don’t have to defend themselves to anyone.

But when it comes to the Olympics, most of us are really cheering two things. One is a flag.

The other is a story.

I know, the networks do the “touching story” bit to death. But there’s a reason. It’s a bridge, a way of bringing out the human in the superhuman. We celebrate the exceptional, but we relish the ordinary, the reminder that these people are still like us.

Or that, maybe, we’re still a bit like them.

So we hear about Im Dong-hyun, the archer with the terrible eyes and the incredible aim.

We marvel at the abilities of Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, and his lickety-split prosthetic feet.

We cheer the teenagers like Missy Franklin, who could almost be our own daughters. We see the oldest of the crew, dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, still doing what he loves at 71 and hope we’re as lucky.

We see the best. And we glimpse ourselves doing it.

Again, the glorious meets the ordinary.

The thing is, it’s easy for us to shrug that off. After all, we do it morally all the time. We see the dedication of a Mother Teresa or the viciousness of an Adolf Hitler and say “I could never do that.” As if they were some separate species that had never been, never could be human.

But what humans have done, humans can do.

That can be a terrifying thought. Or an exhilarating one. It’s one that puts the capacity for greatness – great good or great evil – within the reach of anyone willing to strain and grasp.

And for these couple of weeks, it’s a thought that makes us a family. A dysfunctional one, perhaps. But a family nonetheless.

It might even bring a smile.

In which case, your Olympic toothbrush routine had better be up to date.