By Dario De Quarti
“You don’t need to be amazing to start, but you need to start to be amazing”
This quote from a Toyota commercial accurately describes the reality of the Olympics. Like all of us, an Olympian is initially a tiny creature, a baby. Then, day after day, training session after training session, the magic begins to work. Whereas Harry Potter has a nice and supple wand bought at Ollivander’s, Olympians have their daily sweat. They fight to reach a level of excellency in their sport, as if they wanted to win the Goblet of Fire in the Triwizard tournament. They train, eat, sleep, repeat. They constantly think as Olympians, perform as magicians. When I was a child, I would think of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps as being my Harry and Ron in real life. Their performance seemed so unbelievable that they could not be simply humans or muggles.
However, most of these amazing humans will never receive any medal and will definitely get less media coverage than JK Rowling’s books. Their stories are nonetheless incredible, and I felt the necessity to share some of my favourite ones from the most recent Olympics. In the end, arguing that the Olympics are only about medals is like saying that a Master’s degree is only about grades.
From tragic to heroic
Yusra Mardini is an Olympic swimmer. However, 6 years ago, she was swimming in radically different conditions, in what could be tragically considered as the real-life Marathon Swimming event. At only 17, she fled Syria with her whole family. They were on a boat between Izmir and Lesbos; a boat that was meant for 6 people but that was carrying 18. Suddenly, the motor stopped during the night. There was no Dumbledore or Hermione to Wingardium-leviosa the unlucky future magicians. The boat started taking on water and the Aegean Sea could have been their grave. Yet Yusra, her sister and two other people dived in the water immediately and started pulling the boat. They swam for more than three hours until the engine started working again, and the boat eventually reached Lesbos. Yusra lives today in Germany. Whereas she started her swimming career under the Syrian Flag, she finally competed at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with the Refugee Olympic Team. For the Tokyo Olympics, she was even chosen as flag bearer of the Refugee delegation. On social media, she is a powerful voice for Refugees and she became UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2017. She will probably never get an Olympic medal, but she is definitely part of Gryffindor.
Laurel Hubbard, Transgender athlete. In sport, binary categories have always created dilemmas for the inclusion of transgender athletes. In 2021, the first transgender woman Olympian in history was finally allowed to compete. Aged 43, Laurel Hubbard was born as a male but competed in weightlifting for the New Zealand team, in the female category. The criteria for transgender individuals to participate are based on hormonal measurements to ensure no unfair advantage is kept from her past as a man. Her participation was critiqued but was nonetheless the sign of a new era. Moreover, the Tokyo Olympics featured 18 mixed-gender events, showing the willingness of the Organizers to host the most gender-balanced Olympic Games in history.
Saied Mollaei competed for Iran back in 2016 but participates now under the Mongolian flag. He had the level to win a medal in these Tokyo Olympics. However, during his first participation at the Olympics back in Rio, the Iranian Federation forced him to withdraw before the first fight because of the presence of Sagi Muki, an Israeli judoka. Iran and Israël are not best friends, to put it lightly, but Saeid and Sagi are and often train together. Between 2016 and 2020, Saeid faced constant pressure to abandon prestigious tournaments whenever Sagi was present. Saeid eventually had enough of this forced boycott that was keeping him away from major titles. Therefore, in 2021, he was welcomed by the Mongolian Olympic Federation. Saeid won his first Olympic Silver Medal and dedicated it to his “brother” Sagi and to the people of Israël and Mongolia. Though you can be from Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor or Slytherin and have centuries-old long rivalries, the House Cup has the power to reunite.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a sprinter, became the center of a major diplomatic crisis from one day to the other. She was enrolled by the Belarusian authorities without her consent in a relay race, on a distance she never trained for, and she publicly criticized her coaches, saying she wouldn’t participate. The next day, she was forced to fly back home (and not with a Nimbus3000) and the official excuse was that she was taken off the team because of her “emotional and psychological condition”. Being forced to fly to Belarus does not seem to lead to a happy ending, and Krystsina expressed her desire to seek asylum far from Loukachenko’s regime. Thankfully, she was protected by the local police and was granted a Polish visa, where she now resides with her husband. Krystsina’s case is not singular ; Amnesty documented how Belarussian athletes are nowadays sacrificing their career to stand against their government.
Tom Daley is probably the most well-known athlete in this article. Openly bisexual, Tom is a major athlete defending the LGBTQIA+ cause in his public interventions. During the Tokyo Olympics, his first duty was of course to compete, which he did impressively by winning his first ever Gold Medal. But most people will remember him as the guy knitting while waiting for his turn in the Olympic Arena. Tom was pictured knitting between his dives, an image that became viral. The incredible part is that his creations are sold for nonprofit purposes. During the Olympics, he was knitting for the Brain Tumour Charity, in loving memory of his late father.
Gianmarco Tamberi won every contest he participated in 2016. A few weeks before the Olympics, he got injured and had to renounce potentially winning a medal in Rio’s. On his hospital bed, he wanted to quit sports. His girlfriend convinced him to continue, and together, they wrote “Road To Tokyo 2020” on his leg cast. At Tokyo, Tamberi jumped 2.37m, which meant a provisional first place. Then, Barshim, an extremely talented Qatari, jumped the same height. The two athletes discussed with the judge to decide on how to continue the contest, when Barshim asked “Can we have two Golds ?”. The answer was positive, and thus the world witnessed a shared gold medal, a rare instance in Olympic history. Barshim explained he had the same injury as Tamberi in the past, and he knew what it meant to come back at this level.
We could also talk about Alana Smith, Simone Biles, Oksana Chusovitina, Abdullah al-Rashidi and many more. Inspiring stories are numerous. The next Winter Olympic Games will be held next year in Beijing, in a country that was awarded the Olympics in 2008 with the hope from the IOC that this global showcase would lead to an improvement in the Human Rights situation. Nowadays, it is pretty clear with the Uyghur, Tibet and Hong Kong example that this is not the case. Some countries, the United States among them, are thinking of boycotting the games, but this would only penalize athletes. A real solution should be found to allow sportspeople to express themselves, while not promoting a regime where human rights are neglected and millions of people are detained in more than 380 internment camps. Maybe some of these athletes might inspire the IOC to rethink the location of the future Hogwarts, so as to achieve a full and great celebration of the Olympic Magic.
Photo “See you in Tokyo 2020” by Leandro’s World Tour is licensed under CC BY 2.0