Why the Olympics Matter

Athletes like Julia Lipnitskaia and Sage Kostenburg remind us why the Olympics are important.    

Julia Lipnitskaia of Russia competes in the women's team free skate figure skating competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

Julia Lipnitskaia, 15, of Russia, competes in the women's team free skate figure skating competition Sunday.

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Periodically, there are calls to cancel the Olympics or just decline to go. There are, after all, other championship events where athletes can compete. The Olympics sometimes loom like something of an anachronism – it’s not as though this is the only time we see people perform feats of physical excellence. They are expensive (the Sochi Olympics cost the Russians $52 billion, more than all the other winter games combined), and the hopes for recouping the money later on with tourist dollars has not always materialized.

This year’s winter games brought special problems – both the security concerns (already, a man who tried to hijack a Turkey-bound plane and take it to Sochi has been apprehended) – and the politics. It’s indeed hard to look at Russia as a gracious host when its authoritarian leader has passed laws against promoting the “homosexual lifestyle,” an insult to gay and straight athletes alike.

[See editorial cartoons about Vladimir Putin.]

But it took only a few days of the games to understand why it’s all worth it: the athletes themselves.

If there is tension over politics, you don’t see it among the competitors, who are there to perform incredible feats on the ice and in the snow. Most of us root for the home team, but how could anyone fail to be moved, seeing three Canadian sisters make it to the finals on the slopes, then have two of them medal in the moguls event. And what about American snowboarder Sage Kostenburg, who seems perpetually mellow and happy, who won the gold in slopestyle? He was clearly thrilled to take the top spot, but he brought the silver and bronze medalists up to the top level of the medals podium with him, hugging them to show they were all equal winners, color of metal notwithstanding. The athletes are competitive, but you don’t hear the sort of trash talk so common in professional sports.

Think you’ve seen all there is to see, in terms of athletic excellence? Just look at 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, a Russian figure skater who came out of (almost) nowhere and now appears to be the Nadia Comaneci of her generation and her sport – someone whose performance is so breathtakingly perfect and inspired, you can’t look away, no matter which country’s team is your favorite.

[Check out political cartoons about the 2014 Sochi Olympics.]

It’s not that many of us aren’t displaying a little nationalism (I myself really, really want to beat the Canadians in hockey, men’s and women’s, more than anyone wanted to beat the Russians in 1980). But the games, however much we’ve worried about safety and bad hotels and politics, are, so far at least, proving to do just what the Olympics are supposed to do: bring this troubled and feuding world together in sports, honoring those who have trained tirelessly, sacrificed tremendously, in pursuit of a quadruple axel or a record slalom. It’s messy; it always is. But we all need them.