We watch the Olympic Games for entertainment – to experience the joys of victory and the agony of defeat, and, for a short while, to live vicariously through other people’s dreams. I also think we watch the Olympics to see what takeaways are applicable to our own lives.

Joint gold medalists Mutaz Barshim, right, of Qatar, and Gianmarco Tamberi, left, of Italy, celebrate Aug. 2 following the men’s high jump final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The two finished in a dead heat and asked to share the gold rather than engage in a jump-off. Francisco Seco/Associated Press

Elite athletes make up a tiny fraction of our world. Most people don’t work out in a gym 12 hours a day for their profession. Most people don’t have thousands of cameras broadcasting their beads of sweat to big-screen televisions around the globe.

But we do all experience pressure. We all have small victories and defeats. We all follow paths that we hope will lead to success. At times, we wonder: Are we just going through the motions?

The COVID-19 pandemic upended daily routines for individuals, families and communities around the world. Suddenly, we began to realize that there could be different ways of conducting business, attending school, working, traveling, raising families and balancing lives.

When the vaccines came out, many organizations seemingly forgot those epiphanies in a rush to “return to the way things were before” or else provide glib promises of a “new normal.”

But real change requires more than lip service and company statements. It’s actions, in addition to words, and we only need to look at the performances in Tokyo for leading examples.


During the Grand Prix Freestyle for equestrian dressage, Steffen Peters of Team USA performed an upbeat routine to rave music with his horse Suppenkasper, nicknamed Mopsie, that quickly went viral.

What if a serious sport like dressage can be a little silly and have fun?

The most-hyped athlete of the games, artistic gymnast Simone Biles, withdrew from the team all-around, the individual all-around and the individual vault, floor and uneven bars events.

What if the Greatest of All Time can step away to take care of her mental health?

In the high jump, rather than engage in a jump-off, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi recognized they were equal in ability and agreed to share the gold medal title.

What if, in order for someone to win, someone else doesn’t have to lose?


Growing up, I played competitive sports throughout the year. By the time I got to high school, I realized that I had the power to make changes when I no longer found fulfillment in a particular sport.

Although I was captain of the lacrosse team as a sophomore, I stepped away from the team as a junior because of a policy that penalized athletes who wanted to take a spring vacation. I looked forward to traveling with my family to Virginia and South Carolina every year. If I wanted to continue playing lacrosse, I would have had to sit out games as a punishment for missing practice. I chose the beach.

For most of my childhood, I dreamed of being a WNBA player. I lived and breathed basketball. I made the varsity team my junior year but received very little playing time, so I asked to also play for junior varsity. Although I attended every varsity practice, sat on the bench for every varsity game and engaged with all the team-building activities involved in high school athletics, my coach didn’t recognize me with a varsity letter at the end of the season. She said I didn’t get enough game minutes recorded in the books to earn the distinction.

So, the next year I played ice hockey.

These experiences demonstrated to me that adults in charge of these programs didn’t see the big picture – they didn’t have a holistic approach to understanding how competition is just part of one’s life.

Especially in America, we tend to be laser-focused on outcomes. We think it’s the job title, the salary, the fast car or the gold medal that will ensure happiness.

We forget that true happiness comes when we realize our autonomy. It’s our decisions, our choices – whether we are athletes or not – that make us truly free.

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