Once upon a time, at the Olympics ...
LONDON -- Great Britain is the source of some of our most cherished stories, from "King Arthur" and "Robin Hood," to "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield," to "Winnie the Pooh" and "Harry Potter." Fittingly, the 2012 London Olympics provided us with more astounding stories, beginning with the Queen parachuting into the stadium next to James Bond.
And on their final afternoon, the 2012 Games gave us one last story, a tale of Dickensian strife and Shakespearean inspiration. As America's basketball players were adding gold to combined salaries exceeding $100 million, 25-year-old Adrien Niyonshuti of Rwanda was gasping for air and pedaling his mountain bike furiously up the final dusty hill of the Hadleigh Farm course.
As Philip Gourevitch detailed in a fine New Yorker story last year, Niyonshuti lost 40 family members in the 1994 genocide, including six brothers and sisters. He began riding six years ago on a borrowed bike and soon came in contact with Jock Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour de France. Under Boyer's coaching, Niyonshuti steadily improved as a cyclist and qualified for these Olympics. He carried the Rwanda flag during the opening ceremonies and waved it proudly again for all the world to see Sunday evening during the closing ceremonies.
Niyonshuti said he rides to forget, and if he goes more than three days without riding, he suffers disabling headaches from the memories. He may ride to forget, but despite finishing next to last Sunday afternoon, Niyonshuti rode to tell another story to the world.
"Rwanda is known for something that happened many years ago," he said at the mountain bike course as the familiar "Chariots of Fire" theme played over the venue speakers. "Now I think everyone representing Rwanda here in athletics and showing the flag [can] change some of the history from past times.
"When I carried that flag, I was happy for it to be seen around the world, to show that Rwanda is here."
The official slogan for the 2012 Olympics, and a phrase we heard repeatedly over the past 17 days, was "Inspire a Generation." Hopefully the athletes inspired more than one generation to get off the couch -- after all, competitors here ranged from 16-year-old gold medalist Gabby Douglas to 71-year-old equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu, who first competed at the 1964 Olympic and may have been the only athlete who can actually remember when the music played at the closing ceremonies was popular.
I mean, John Lennon and "Imagine'' are timeless, but Annie Lennox and the Pet Shop Boys? Or Russell Brand lip-synching to "I Am the Walrus"?
Oh, well. As Eric Idle sang, "Always look on the bright side of life." And the 2012 Olympians provided some fantastic bedtime stories, writing their tales of inspiration while competing along dusty mountain trails by the sea and in front of gilded royal palaces.
"To all the Olympians who came to London to compete, thank you," London Olympic Committee chairman Sebastian Coe said during the closing ceremonies. "Those of us who came to watch witnessed moments of heroism and heartache that will live long in the memory."
Indeed. We will look back on these London Olympics and say, "Once upon a time "
There was a young man named Michael who swam like a porpoise and competed like a shark. Michael was such a great swimmer he competed at four Olympics, from age 15 to 27, and won 22 medals, including 18 golds. He was so good that when he won six medals -- four gold! -- at the 2012 Olympics, it was considered no big deal. He inspired a young swimmer from South Africa named Chad le Clos, who grew up to swim against his hero in London. And when he did, le Clos said he walked onto the pool deck thinking, "I want to make Michael proud." He did, beating Michael in the 200-meter butterfly and prompting his hero's eyes to get misty as he thought about his legacy.
There once was a young girl named Gabby, who could leap like a deer and soar like Peter Pan. She wasn't yet old enough to drive a car in 2012, but she was experienced, confident and athletic enough to lift her team to a gold medal, win one for herself as the best gymnast in the world and add to the 29 golds won by American women (compared to 17 by the men). And while spinning on the bars, she made people briefly believe a girl could fly.
There once was a young man named Usain, who ran like a flash and roared like a lion. In the entire history of the world, there never had been a man who ran so fast. He won three gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, then won three more in 2012. He celebrated by leading an entire stadium of fans in the Wave and declaring himself a living legend. "It isn't even a question," he said. "I've done something no one else has ever done."
And once upon a time, there was a young man named Mateo, who was so driven to compete, he ran with a broken leg so his teammates could race for a medal another day. "Every step that I took was like Jello-O on my left leg," Mateo said while leaning on crutches the next day. "I don't know whether you can call it God or adrenaline or just the spirit of USA in my heart. I just didn't want to quit, and I just kept going."
And then there was a young man named Oscar, who had no legs at all below the knees, but this would not stop him from running like the wind and reaching the Olympics. Cynics said he had an unfair advantage because he ran on "magic legs," but everyone else was so inspired that after he raced at the 2012 Olympics, the champion of the world walked up and asked him for his bib number. "Oscar is a great person, a God-fearing person and a great individual, and I think we should see him like that and nothing else," Kirani James said. "It's an honor just to compete against him."
As for those supposedly magic legs? Scientists researched them and declared they provided no unfair advantage. As Oscar said, "I didn't grow up thinking I had a disability. I grew up thinking I had different shoes."
And that really is the moral of this incredible 2012 Olympic story. We all enter the world with the same Olympic possibilities. We may lose our legs. We may lose our family. We may lose a race that leaves us crushed. But the one thing we must never lose is our spirit. Like Niyonshuti, we must show we are here.
We make our own legends. We create our own magic. We write our own stories.
See you in Rio.