London 2012 will offer countless reasons to cheer.
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, America diver Greg Louganis gashed his head on a diving board, but persevered to win a gold medal. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, gymnast Kerri Strug, hobbling with a foot injury, landed a vault that catapulted her U.S. team, dubbed the "Magnificent Seven," to its first all-around gold.
Olympic Games create memorable moments -- inspiring, heartbreaking and unexpected -- which is why people around the globe will tune in (opening ceremonies are today in London). The kind of courage and resilience demonstrated, not to mention the staggering athleticism, never fails to captivate or stir emotion.
Too often commentators wax eloquently about the Olympic spirit, then track medal standings as though the games were a measure of national greatness. The Olympics exist to elevate sports, but also to foster international cooperation and goodwill. More than 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries -- friends and foes alike -- will come together in London, a huge feat in and of itself.
That doesn't mean that a little national and local pride isn't in order. The United States is sending 530 athletes, and, for the first time, the majority will be women (269 women; 261 men). It's fitting that this milestone comes as the nation marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, a federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in education that removed significant barriers in sports for girls and women.
Minnesotans will have much to cheer about, too: At least 14 athletes and three coaches with state ties are among Team USA. Their talent is as deep and broad as the range of sports they represent, including basketball, cycling, diving, fencing, rowing, track and field, volleyball, and wrestling.
Among them is Rachel Boostma, who knocked off a reigning gold medal Olympian for a spot on the women's swimming team. BMX racer Alise Post bounced back from a knee injury to earn a slot on the women's cycling team. And three players from the 2011 WNBA Championship Minnesota Lynx -- Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen -- will help Team USA defend its streak of basketball gold.
Over the next 17 days, we'll have access to athletes behind the scenes like never before because of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. In competitions, we'll witness good and poor sportsmanship, and feats of grace, as well as athletes who crumble under pressure. Dreams will be realized for some, crushed for others. No doubt, there'll be a few scandals, too.
We'll also witness inspiring stories about the human spirit, including athletes who overcame the odds just to be at the Games. Among them this summer is marathoner Guor Marial, who took up running as a child to escape a Sudanese labor camp. He has no official country, but is being allowed to participate under the Olympic flag.
In another milestone, Saudi Arabia is allowing women to participate for the first time. Its leaders reluctantly agreed after being pressured by human-rights groups and the International Olympic Committee. That breakthrough is tempered by the fact that females are severely restricted from sports participation in that country.
Although the Olympics are supposed to be about sports, not politics, the two inevitably become intertwined in some cases. This year, the IOC steadfastly refused appeals from government officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to remember the 40th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Games.
Safety remains a paramount concern, particularly since GS4, the private security firm hired for the games, failed to live up to its contract. The British Army is deploying 5,000 additional soldiers to make up for the shortfall -- and we trust spectators and participants will be safe under their watch.
The Olympics couldn't come at a better time. After last week's massacre at a Colorado theater, more senseless killings this week in the Twin Cities, and escalating violence in Syria and elsewhere, the Games will provide flashes of international unity and countless reasons to cheer. At heart, it's a giant sports festival. But the overriding goal of the Games isn't to win medals -- it's to foster a renewed spirit of hope and peace.
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