The Real Face of the Beijing Olympics

The anticipation of the Beijing Olympics was palpable -and the spectacular opening ceremonies, at the impressive Bird’s Nest, proved it was well worth the wait. Yet the ideals of the summer games are also well represented behind the scenes:

1. Lopez Lomong was elected by his teammates to be the United States flag bearer. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan rescued from a Kenyan refugee camp by a United Nations program, he qualified for the U.S. team in the 1,500 meter race. What a story – personified in the host country, China, which has been strongly criticized for its record on human rights. One of the key concerns has been the war torn Darfur region of Lomong’s home, Sudan. Lomong joined Team Darfur, a group formed to raise awareness of perceived abuses. As an ambassador of the U.S. and an athlete from Sudan, he’s showing his character as well as sending a message: "I am worried about the kids who are dying in Darfur, kids who don’t have the dream they could be good athletes or Olympians or doctors, because they will be running away from their villages separated from their families." Lomong’s greatest hope is to inspire young kids around the world.

2. It has been three months since the 7.8 earthquake that devastated the Sichuan province of China, killing 70,000 people, injuring 375,000 and leaving more than 5 million homeless. Over 7,000 classrooms were destroyed and close to 10,000 children died in the tragedy. With the one child rule in China, there was an outpouring of grief as many families lost their only child. In the opening ceremony 9-year old Lin Hao, a student in a primary school at the epicenter, accompanied flag bearer Yao Ming – and represented hope for the Chinese people. After surviving the earthquake and getting out of his classroom, Lin Hao went back to pull two classmates to safety. During his rescue efforts he was hit by falling rubble and suffered a head injury. While waiting for help he encouraged his classmates to sing, keeping their spirits up. When asked why he risked his life, he said that he was the hall monitor and it was his job to look after his classmates. Although Lin Hao is not an Olympian – at least not yet – his heroism makes a grieving country proud and, while still mourning, allows all of China to enjoy the celebration.

3. The power of emotional support is exemplified by the families at the Olympics, watching their emerging adult children spread their wings as they compete. With world records and more gold medals than any other Olympian in history under his belt, everyone is talking about Michael Phelps. His mother and sisters have described the emotional roller coaster ride – the ups and downs, the pressure, the racing hearts, and then the ultimate excitement. His mother sees the aquatic center as Michael’s office and knows that he’s working to perform at his highest level. Just after his most dramatic win, Phelps said: "I don’t know what to feel right now. It’s so emotional. All I want to do is go see my mom." The Phelps family epitomizes the good in families, as well as their dreams and heroes.

4. Elisabeth McCutcheon, married to the U.S. men’s volleyball coach, Hugh McCutcheon, was a member of the women’s volleyball team in Athens, Her parents, Todd and Barbara Bachman, were great supporters of the sport. The first day of the games, Todd died of a stabbing and Barbara was seriously injured by an attacker who committed suicide by jumping from the ancient Drum Tower. Hugh’s first thought, when hearing the news of his in-laws, was how to get to his wife. As a coach, as well as a son-in-law, there was no question about what to do in the face of such a tragedy. His response was what others expected of him: "Volleyball is my job, my family is my life." He left to support and comfort his wife. McCutcheon phoned his team before the first game, providing leadership from a distance. The volleyball community that loved the Bachman family rallied. The men took the floor for that first match with the victims’ initials written on the backs of their shoes and said a silent prayer in memory of Todd Bachman. In a match that was much tougher than it should have been, the U.S. men’s volleyball team won what turned out to be a bitter-sweet victory.

5. The first time ever, two U.S. women won gold and silver medals in the all-around individual gymnastics competition. For Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson – teammates, competitors and friends – it’s been a long journey to a dream that has finally come true. The pair anchored the U.S. team that took silver behind China’s gold earlier in the week. Liukin said she was not disappointed, but she and Johnson wanted more. They made a calendar, counting the days until they got their next chance for gold. They wanted to go all out and have fun. And the two pals managed to do both. "I couldn’t be any prouder of Nastia," Johnson said. "She deserved that gold medal. She’s one of my best friends and we just want the best for each other." The silver seemed to whet Johnson’s appetite. She’d like to try again at the Olympics in London. "After experiencing the Olympics, I’d give anything to feel that again. If I can in 2012, I’ll be there."

Competing and winning is important. But don’t forget about character strength, moral values and the emotional support of those who care about you. What words of wisdom do the athletes share from their personal experiences? Follow your heart, love what you do, work hard and have fun. It’s definitely an excellent exercise for all of us – so stretch into that one.

(C) Her Mentor Center, 2008

Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. is co-founder of, a website for midlife women and, a blog for the Sandwich Generation. She is co-author of a forthcoming book about Baby Boomers and family relationships. She offers a free newsletter Stepping Stones

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