Written by Rabbi Alison Kobey, Congregation Or Chadash in Damascus, MD. We are fortunate to have Rabbi Ali on our 6 Points Faculty Team each summer at 6 Points!
It is my favorite time of the biennial cycle: the time of the Olympics! Summer or Winter, it does not matter. I love them both. I love that the Olympics combines many of my passions into two-ish weeks of greatness: sports, athleticism, worldliness, healthy competition, Torah (Yes, Torah!), and personal narratives. The values from Torah are rampant throughout the Olympics: perseverance, kindness, intention, familial support, pride, tolerance, acceptance, and the list just keeps going. The Olympics blend body, mind, and spirit, with athletes regularly pushing themselves in unfathomable ways with one more twirl, flip, or boost of adrenalin that allows them to beat even their own previous achievements. Olympism seeks “the educational value of good example and respect, for universal fundamental ethical principles… and contributes to a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play” (https://www.olympic.org/the-ioc/promote-olympism). Yes, we know that the ideal is not always met, but how incredible when we observers experience the ideal. Sports have the ability to unite people, to help people grow and flourish, even in unexpected ways.
Many of us know the story of the women’s Korean hockey team. With just a few weeks left before the start of the Olympics, the South Korean women’s hockey team was told that they needed to include the North Koreans and have one united team representing Korea. Despite the two countries not getting along (to say the least), they had been asked to put aside national differences and work together. Because North Korea banned certain words, the North Korean athletes even had an alternative hockey language, so in addition to the women quickly learning to blend skills and strengths and reformulate their team, they even had to learn the basics of how to communicate with one another. Regardless of the final scores, these women are already champions, showing the world their commitment to unity and the Olympic vision.
If you are following the Winter Olympics, you likely know the name of Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the greatest skiers of all time. At age 22, she is already World Cup champion and the reigning Olympic champion in slalom. Incredible achievements without a doubt! But, a lesser known fact, is that Mikaela is filled with self-doubt. She shared a story of her therapist helping her trust and believe in herself and now, in her mittens she carries the words, “I am”. For her, it means “I am good enough. I am strong enough. I am dedicated enough. I am a hard-enough worker.” It reminds me of the teaching from our tradition of having two strips of paper in our pockets: “I am but dust and ashes” and “the world is created for me.” Mikaela, one of the greatest athletes of all time, still has those internal conversations of “am I good enough?” The answer to me, of course, is yes, but her humility only heightens Mikaela’s well-deserved label of being a champion.
Just a few other examples of my Winter Olympic joy… I am struck with the stories of Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga. Perhaps you are less familiar with these names, but I wonder if I say the bobsled team from Nigeria, you will light-up with recognition. How incredible that these three women are THE first bobsledders (male or female) of the entire continent of Africa. They did not let their warm weather get in their way, but instead trained even harder and are competing in these Winter Olympics. How can we not recognize the value of perseverance and celebrate this Cinderella story?
I love that when the North Korean ice skating pair came out onto the ice, again knowing the deep divide between North and South Korea, the two Olympic athletes were cheered as enthusiastically as the South Korean skaters. I love, too, the sportsmanship shown by Sui Wenjing, the 2017 world champion ice skater who was the first to hug Aliona Savchenko and her skating partner Bruno Massot, who won the gold for Germany.
I focused on women athletes today, for, like many circles, I believe far too many women are still in the shadows of their male counterparts. I certainly recognize that I could have shared other stories as well (although only the women Korean hockey team worked to compete under the united Korean flag). How great that the values from Torah are reflected again and again throughout the Olympics. “May nation not lift up sword against nation, may there be war no more” (Isaiah 2:4). Following the prophets’ words, let us distance ourselves from war and join together to celebrate the athleticism, sportsmanship, and positive values of the Olympics!