By J.A. Adande

The most Olympian moment during these Winter Games actually occurred at the Daytona 500.

It came when Bubba Wallace broke down in tears as he hugged his mother at the start of his post-race press conference. Wallace finished second and seemed almost embarrassed by his mother’s happiness as she embraced him and congratulated him. “You act like we just won the race,” he said.

“We did!” she replied. “We did win.”

She knew – and deep inside he knew as well – that the highest finish by an African American driver in the history of the Daytona 500 was a victory. Yes, even in NASCAR, the sport whose cinematic version gave us the credo, “If you ain’t first, you’re last”,  it is possible to win when you lose. And that’s been the message reinforced over and over at the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Start with Chris Mazdzer, whose silver medal represented America’s first individual male medal in luge in Olympics history. He sure sounded like a happy winner during an eloquent news conference the next day. Or read Chuck Culpepper’s wonderful story in The Washington Post about the last finishers in the men’s 15 kilometer cross-country skiing race, people who came from countries known for coffee or spices more than winter sports, who were euphoric about simply completing the race, and earned congratulatory handshakes from the gold medalist. Or think of the joy on Adam Rippon’s face as he skated around the rink with a routine that he knew lacked the athletic feats to place him on the medal stand but represented his best and most artistic effort.

Those are the people and the moments that make the Olympics special.

At my first working Olympics, in Atlanta in 1996, I was assigned to cover the United States men’s and women’s basketball teams, who predictably marched to gold medals. The most memorable moment was when Dennis Rodman showed up at one of the games and caused a stir.

In Salt Lake City in 2002 I covered the American hockey teams, who were really good but not quite as good as the Canadians.

I struggle to remember anything I wrote about any of them. It’s a story from Turin in 2006 that stays with me, about the bobsled team from Brazil that had the slowest times of every sled that went down the hill but was happy just to make it to the finish line – happy just to have the chance to make another run after a crash on the first run cracked one of their helmets and jeopardized their ability to continue racing until a German bobsledder lent them his helmet. As the Brazilian team leader said, holding the helmet up as he hurried to give it to his rider, “This is the Olympic spirit right here.”

The Olympic spirit is people from different nations coming together to challenge themselves and each other, both competing and sharing. That’s why a Korean women’s hockey team that didn’t win a game and was outscored by a combined 28-2 became one of the most loved and respected group of participants. North Korean and South Korean women joined together in a historic partnership that will be remembered long after the final scores.

That the Games could go off with so much cooperation between the two countries that are still technically at war is the greatest accomplishment, outdoing every athletic performance. It made these Olympics successful, regardless of the winds that wreaked havoc on the Alpine skiing schedule, or the traffic that brought transportation buses to a halt. The Games have gone on, peacefully, making it easy to forget that as recently as two months ago the White House was noncommittal about sending American athletes to Pyeongchang because of safety concerns.

Our Medill students who covered their first Olympics as part of the graduate school’s Medill Explores program exemplified the Olympic spirit as well. They exerted maximum effort to get stories, from making extra phone calls to climbing aboard one last bus at the end of a long day to get to one more venue for another interview. The Olympics provide unparalleled sports storytelling opportunities, but they are earned. In this case, it took a 14-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul followed by a three-hour train ride to our lodging location in Gangneung just to get to the starting line.

I think everyone who covered the Olympics could appreciate this exchange between gold medal ice dancer Tessa Virtue of Canada and Canadian TV reporter Matthew Scianitti, which Scianitti posted on Twitter:

 

Virtue: How are you guys?

Scianitti: You mean us?

Virtue: Yeah

Scianitti: Dude, you just skated in front of the world and won a gold medal. Doesn’t matter how we are.

Virtue: Yes it does. The Olympics are tough on everybody.

 

Yes, they’re tough on everybody. But everybody has a chance to win, even if they don’t all get gold medals.