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Camillo Zacchia, PhD Headshot

Olympic Athletes Leave Me In Awe Of Their Achievements

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bradley wiggins olympic
Bradley Wiggins pedals during his attempt to break cycling's hour record at the Olympic velodrome in East London, Britain, June 7, 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Winning)

The Olympics and I go way back. I was in the 1976 games in Montreal. Well... more like "at" the games rather than "in," but let's not get technical. I was 17 and my summer job was to work crowd control. We were all hired for six weeks even though the games took place over the last two. For the first four weeks, we were asked to make sure no trouble happened around the site. In actual fact, we slept -- or watched the construction workers sleep while being paid overtime -- played Frisbee, and admired our orange polyester double-knit jump suits. Good times, good times! I got to watch the closing ceremonies from my perch atop one of the scoreboards. A great experience!

Just prior to the start of the games, I had the opportunity to walk into the newly built Olympic stadium. I was alone in the cavernous behemoth. The red rubberized track still had that straight-out-of-the-showroom new track smell! The white lines were perfect. I looked around and saw that I was near the long jump pit. I was wearing my new red suede Adidas Gazelle running shoes and decided to test myself.

I looked around. Still nobody! I focused down the lane and started running. I reached my top speed and hit the take-off strip almost perfectly. My leap was magnificent - a classic double hitch with a full stretch at the landing...

... I landed at a point exactly half way between the take-off line and the START of the sand pit landing area. Holy s***, that's a long way! The long-jump world record, by the way, is as long as my house!

Citius - Altius - Fortius
Call me a purist but I think real Olympic sports are the ones where the winner can be determined precisely. Yes, I know, diving is beautiful sport, but come on, can we really say who is best? Every dive looks great only to be criticized by the commentators. "Oh, that was a total miss. Look at the splash that came up." A miss? Are you kidding me? My golf balls bring up more splash when I plop one into a water hazard. By the way, when I dive into my pool, enough water is thrown out to irrigate a good-sized rice paddy.

My experience at the long-jump pit impressed me like no other. Notwithstanding our fantasies of great athletic achievements, nothing compares to taking a clock or a measuring tape and seeing how you stack up to the world's best. It is a humbling experience indeed.

Swifter
There is a famous cycling record, the one-hour race in a velodrome. Basically, it involves racing around the track for one-hour and calculating how far you've traveled. The current unified record is held by Bradley Wiggins who covered 54.5 kilometers. I once calculated how my best performance on a bike would compare to the vaunted hour-record. Now I'm no athlete but I'm a pretty decent cyclist. In fact, I could be world class if there was a category called: Senior - Extra Stout. Well, if I were on the same 250-metre track and pumping at full capacity, Bradley would lap me 106 times. That's once every 33.9 seconds!

Higher
Javier Sotomayor's world record high jump is higher than my living room ceiling! On a good day, with a proper warm-up, I think I can touch the ceiling with my fingertips. Getting my ass to clear such a height is a whole other matter.

Stronger
I did some weightlifting in high school. I was in eighth grade and still young (13) but I won the competition among my classmates with a clean-and-jerk of 125 pounds! The teacher once put 200 pounds on the bar. I couldn't even move it. Hossein Rezazadeh's world record in the clean-and jerk is 263 kilos (580 effing pounds!). That's almost three of me... and remember, I'm extra stout! (As Sylvester the cat would whimper when in trouble, "Mother!")

So, hats off to all those incredible human specimens competing in the Olympics. I am truly in awe of all of them. If you are one of those people who sits on your sofa all day criticizing athletes who don't win medals in events they were favoured in, try getting on a bike and timing yourself. Or better yet, take a long hard look at your ceiling!

Flag vs. flag
As impressive as Olympic performances can be, there is one aspect of the games that makes me uncomfortable. It is the unbridled jingoism it can encourage. There was a disheartening story out of the last Olympics in London about Lebanese judo fighters refusing to train next to the Israelis, forcing officials to erect a screen between them. Human nature's tendency to form and label groups can be fun when you cheer for a national team, but should the place of someone's birth be celebrated as much as the individual achievement? One of the reasons we need to spend so much money on security is because the world is so strongly divided along political, linguistic and religious lines. The fun of cheering for a flag has an evil twin. National pride magnifies our differences.

This is not to say we should not enjoy cheering on our Canadian athletes. I will be right there with the rest of you. But let's not forget that a magnificent athletic achievement is still inspiring even if the winner has a name we can't pronounce. The Olympic games provide us with an opportunity to celebrate humanity as much as country.

Let the games begin!

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