I have fond memories of watching the Olympics ever since I was a 9-year-old sitting on the edge of the couch, staying up way past my bedtime to see if Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller would win a medal at the 92′ Barcelona games. Twenty years later I sat on the edge of my couch watching the Olympics once again, but this time I am in Guatemala. And I watched the Olympics on a Latin American station, with no Ryan Seacrest, with no nightly medal count and maybe most refreshingly, with Spanish commentators who had more positive things to say than negative.
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I have heard it said that it takes about two years to really adjust and begin to understand a new culture, and that it takes even more time to fully analyze and understand your own culture. Sometimes it’s hard to see and understand the cultural values that are deeply embedded in us because we don’t know anything different.
But now I do. I am beginning to see and know a different way of life. A new country. A different understanding of cultural expectations and values that makes me also question and re-look at what my own country has taught me. And it has never been more apparent to me than as I watched the Olympics. The US sent 530 Olympic athletes to the games in London- 530 athletes who come from top training programs, expert coaches and entire lifestyles and training camps focused on making them the best. Success is measured by how many golds we earn and we keep track to make sure our medal count is ahead of China. We like athletes who win and also who happen to look good while winning.
Now compare that to Guatemala. If the US is the Olympic Goliath, than Guatemala is the David.
Guatemala is about the size of Tennessee and has roughly 14 million people. We sent 19 athletes to the games in London. One of the local papers here celebrated these 19 before they even boarded the plane to London. Because in Guatemala just to make it to the Olympics is a huge honor. Many athletes spend their weeks working full-time and training. There are no such things as sponsors or a national Olympic training center. To be an Olympic athlete is seen as nothing less than a privilege. Don’t get me wrong every athlete at the Olympic level has worked extremely hard and deserves the right to represent their country and compete, but the attitude and expectation is different in Guatemala. Let me show you:
1) The Olympic Coverage: In the states Olympic coverage tends to only show the top three contenders or super-powers, which since the US is always in the top three for nearly every sport, there’s no problem. Since gymnastics was been my favorite sport growing up I used to think the only gymnasts competing came from the US, Russia, Romania or China. That’s all the broadcasts showed. This year however on my local channel 13, when I watched the night of the Olympic Gymnastics qualifying round I saw gymnasts from Basil, Italy, Greece, Venezuela, Switzerland, Guatemala and of course, the US, China and Russia.
2) Matter of Perspective: I was particularity struck at how Victoria Komova, the Russian gymnast who “lost” the gold medal to Gabby Douglass in the Women’s All-Around Gymnastic event, was crying after she saw the score. Her head hung low, buried in her knees as she sat on the chairs because she “lost” the coveted gold medal and only got the silver. She was disappointed, and maybe rightfully so for being so close. But, now meet Ana Sofia Gomez Porras, Guatemala’s only Olympic Gymnast since the 1992 games. The 16-year-old performed solid qualifying day routines and was excited and honored to get a chance to compete in the Women’s All Around finals. Before she even competed the media here was ecstatic. She finished in 22nd place out of 24 gymnasts. In the US you would have heard the commentators say something along the lines of, ” and 2nd to last is Ana Sofia from Guatemala.” But not here. Do you know how they announced it here in Guatemala? “Ana Sofia is the 22nd best gymnast in the world!” 22nd best. Not 2nd to last. Maybe just a matter of perspective, right?
3) Erik Barrondo: You probabaly haven’t heard this name, unless you follow race-walking (yes, it’s an Olympic sport) or Guatemalan Olympians. Erick is a 21-year old Guatemalan Olympian who was born in a poor, indigenous village near San Christobal Verapaz, about 5 hours away from Guatemala city. Erick started out training as a middle distance runner, but due to an injury his coach encouraged him to try race walking.
This is a picture of him in front of his home after he won a gold medal at the Pan America Games last year. Before he left for London he bought his parents a TV so they could watch him compete.
And last Saturday he competed in the 20k race-walk and won the silver medal. Let me clarify…
He won Guatemala’s FIRST Olympic medal EVER.
You can imagine what it felt like to be in a country where they had never watched one of their own athletes on the podium. Gerber and I watched from a local coffee shop last Saturday morning as Guatemalans cheered and screamed as Erick crossed the finish line. He stood on the podium, next to two men from China, and received his silver medal with a humble pride. You can read more of his inspirational story here or watch this:
Erik told a reporter after he won:
“I feel like this is the biggest privilege life has granted me…to win the first Olympic medal for Guatemala. It’s a country that has suffered much, but it also has dreamed much.”
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It makes me wonder if that gratefulness wears off in the US because, for better or worse, because we are used to winning gold. Can there be too much of a good thing?
I value my country’s effort to create a land of opportunities and unlimited access to things that most people in the world could never imagine having. But I sometimes mourn the fact that we become greedy and focused on winning for the sake of numbers, for a score. It seems that we easily forget the individuals and the honor that it is to simply compete in the Olympics. We forget to give thanks and acknowledge what a privilege it is to represent one’s country, even if there were no endorsement offers, no parades, no promises of fame and glory.
I like that the attitude deeply embedded in Guatemala is different. Nothing is taken for granted. Gratefulness is the only expectation. Not gold medals.