Olympic women show their countries the way
Someone ought to inform Michael Phelps that no matter how many gold medals he wins, no matter how many records he obliterates or primal screams he unleashes, he cannot emerge as the hero of the 2008 Olympics.
We already have a hero. Make that heroes.
Phelps can swim his way to eight gold medals, eclipsing the record set by Mark Spitz, and still pale in comparison to the achievement of Nino Salukvadze and Natalia Paderina, neither of whom is destined for endorsement riches or the guest seat alongside Regis and Kelly.
One is from Russia, the other from Georgia. If you've been watching CNN, you know there are problems between the two countries.
Let's hear it for the girls, who with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek showed the world that the Olympic ideal, perhaps a flicker, not a flame, cannot be extinguished. We can only hope their leaders are watching, appreciating and downloading the message.
Their countries are at war. People are dying. They're suffering. How fast things change.
It was just last week that Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was in Beijing, inside the Bird's Nest stadium, waving to his country's Olympic athletes during an opening ceremony for the ages.
And now Putin oversees the Russian army's movements into South Ossetia, a disputed territory of Georgia. We will not address right and wrong, at least not as it applies to warring nations.
We will, however, stand and applaud athletes who demonstrate a great deal more compassion, sympathy and common sense than our world, uh, leaders.
These athletes shared a medal podium. No glare. No ire. No hate. The 32-year-old Paderina, who serves in the Russian army, took silver in one of the air pistol categories. Salukvadze, 39, won bronze.
It's not their medals we should celebrate. It's their mettle. And conviction.
They were friends before the tanks, missiles and bombs, before the killing and carnage. And they are still friends, sharing a simple act they had to know meant so much more.
As their nations declare war, they say enough, already! Stop.
The picture of their embrace is, indeed, worth 1,000 words. Here are 44 more.
"If the world were to draw any lesson from what I did, there would never be any wars," Salukvadze said during a press conference. "We live in the 21st century after all and in the 21st century we shouldn't really stoop so low as to wage wars against one other."
How is Phelps supposed to top that?
The National Rifle Association likes to say that guns don't kill people. People kill people. Well, here are two ladies with guns who are trying to save lives. Remarkable.
"There should be no hatred amongst athletes, and there should be no hatred among people, either," Salukvadze said. "The politicians should certainly sort out the situation. If they don't, we'll have to get involved."
They're already involved. Pictures of their embrace are being beamed around the world. Naive, perhaps, but maybe it can change hearts and minds.
And to think, so much of the chatter leading into these Olympics focused on whether the athletes would make political statements.
The International Olympic Committee made itself clear, that sports and politics don't mix. The US Olympic Committee showed its cowardice when it failed to voice support for one of its own, former gold medal winner and human-rights activist Joey Cheek, whose visa was rescinded by the host government at the last minute.
Paderina pointed out that she and Salukvadze, both mothers, by the way, have been shooting together for a long time.
"Sports are beyond politics," she said.
It's easy to roll your eyes and harrumph when IOC President Jacques Rogge starts in with the mumbo-jumbo about the Olympic movement, better understanding through sport or, as is plastered on billboards throughout Beijing, One World One Dream.
Sometimes it's just easier to forget the outside ugliness, to wander inside the magnificent Water Cube and marvel at one man's drive for eight gold medals.
But then two women, friends from warring nations, share an embrace. The heroes of these Games have already been determined.
And to think that neither has a shot at eight gold medals.
Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Wednesday August 13, 2008