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D'var Torah - The Olympics Conclude

Rabbi Douglas Kohn
August 19, 2016 

Soon, in Rio, the Olympics will conclude. Thousands of world-class athletes, and hopefully, world class human beings, will have competed one against the other, to demonstrate talents and abilities on the fields and rivers, in arenas and stadiums, in pools, platforms and mats, each trying to outperform the other and be decorated as the best in her or his pursuit. Every four years, the Olympics rivets us to the television, as we watch the expected and the unexpected, hoping to share in a memorable, compelling moment.

Who will ever forget the diminutive Simone Biles, following in the likes of Olga Korbut, as she leaped and spun and bedazzled, or Mary Lou Retton, as she vaulted to perfection and rewarded us with her smile and grit?

And, who can forget the image of Michael Phelps, returning, reminding us of Mark Spitz, a Reform Jew from Los Angeles, standing, posing with a further record of gold medals dangling from his neck?

And, as much as we try, who can expunge the image of Palestinian thugs in that same Munich, a city of tortured Jewish history, murdering eleven Olympian Israelis?

So many images prevail, including diving to gold, dream-team basketball, and an unforgettable race between two driven women, who fell. We saw this week images of Abey D’Agostino and Nikki Harblin, whose feet became entangled, and then one fell, and was graciously aided to her feet by the other, and then the second fell, only to be lifted by the first. Such an Olympic moment – yet, it was presaged and scripted by a similar circumstance from 32 years earlier, a famous women’s race in the LA Olympics of 1984. That race pitted Mary Decker against Zola Budd, each extreme competitors, running stride for stride, Budd the favorite, Decker the American hope, on each other’s heals. And then their feet touched and Decker fell hard to the surface, her face in anguish, while Budd continued on without even a glance looking back. She would not win the race, and Decker would seethe as runners ran by her, and medical help raced towards her, as she lay alone, writhing on the ground. It is an Olympic image ever etched in my mind, replayed this week.

Olympian racers falling… Actually, it happened twice in 1984; the second incident, however, largely went unnoticed, unfortunately, for it truly showed how real Olympians can be world class athletes and world class human beings. The other race was in the Olympics after the Olympics, the Special Olympics, in which young men and women with various disabilities compete for gold, silver and bronze medals as well, sometimes from wheelchairs, or sometimes with prosthetics limbs or other limitations.

It was a memorable race, that second contest of 1984. The competitors were lined up, nervous at the starting line, and the gun went off. The racers started running, or rambling down their lanes when one young man stumbled and fell to the ground. Just a moment later, the runner in the next lane, a young man with the beautiful face and smile of Down’s Syndrome, noticed that no one was runnning alongside him, and he looked over his shoulder, saw his competitor on the ground, and stopped and started back to his side. Then, the runner in the other adjoining lane also noticed the empty slot to the other side, also looked back, stopped and turned back. Soon, the entire heat had stopped and gone back to help up the fallen runner, and clustered around him, they ran gingerly together to the finish line, smiling, arm-in-arm.

Friends, to me, that’s why we call it the Special Olympics.

In truth, though, it is not only the great or disabled runners, gymnasts, swimmers and wrestlers who are at the starting lines, on the parallel bars in the pool or on the mat. We all are in our own Olympics of life, indeed. We are in economic races, we swim in pools of busy life distractions, we twist amid familial gymnastics, and wrestle with challenges to spiritual comfort and sureness and learning. Just living can be an Olympian task, and living graciously makes one a special Olympian.

As we prepare to close this Olympics, as the dramatic flame shortly is extinguished, and sent on to Tokyo, may we use this Erev Olympics Shabbat to review our own competitions. May we be inspired by our own flames to make our runs more than striding in a human race, but in a humane race. May we vault to help the other, jump for compassion and caring, dive into learning and study, and wrestle with Torah.

We, too, can make Olympic moments and images for ourselves, from Shabbat to Shabbat; we don’t have to wait every four years for the opportunity. May we go for the gold, in our own Special Olympics.