Lessons From the Olympics: The Untold Stories

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games belong to history. Although the Olympic flame inevitably burned out, the pictures of those who for two weeks broke every barrier to give us joy and pride will stay in our memories for longer. Such athletes as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, or Yelena Isinbayeva have already inscribed their names in sports almanacs. But there are other heroes whose achievements deserve even greater applause.

The Beijing Olympics were special for Hugh McCutcheon. The 39-year-old New Zealand coach of the US men`s volleyball team had spent many sleepless nights working out a winning strategy. The last time the Americans made it to the Olympic finals was 20 years ago, and as most of his star players were way over 30, Beijing appeared as the last opportunity to score the gold medal. But one day before the first game, McCutcheon`s father-in-law was stabbed to death while touring the Chinese capital.

McCutcheon could not see how his boys play their debut game. His wife, a former volleyball player, was in despair; he also had to attend his mother-in-law who was wounded during the attack. With no coach around, the Americans struggled against Venezuela, but eventually won 3:2. They went on to capture the seven next games, including the final, defeating the tournament`s favorites: Serbia, Russia, and Brazil. There was no doubt to whom McCutcheon dedicated his medal, saluting the sky at the award ceremony.

Weightlifter Matthias Steiner of Germany arrived in Beijing with only one goal: to win the gold medal. He was not vain or overambitious; he promised the gold to his wife, Suzanne, when she died one year before the beginning of the Olympics. He said that Suzanne had first seen him on TV and immediately had fallen in love with the powerful but rambunctious athlete. They set the first date via e-mail and the moment Matthias saw her, he knew she would be his wife.

When Suzanne died in a car accident, two years after their got married, Matthias was devastated. His entire world was in shambles, but the promise he gave his wife in the last moments of her life – that he will win the gold medal – kept him sane. Although without fireworks, he managed to qualify to the Olympics where weightlifters from Russia and Turkey were the favorites. It took Matthias the record total weight of 1014 pounds to keep his promise, a weight he had not thought he was capable of lifting.

“She is always with me, in the hours before the competition, she`s there,” he said, clutching his wife`s picture in his hand. “I managed to lift it because I had this strong, innermost urge,” he told journalists through the tears. The over 231-pound German sportsman was not the only one crying at the moment. Emotions swept through his coach, reporters, spectators in the gymnasium, and hundreds of millions of viewers from around the world.

The Olympics are the time when athletes compete against one another and against their own weaknesses. Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Yelena Isinbayeva showed us that there is no physical barrier a human being could not be able to break. Hugh McCutcheon and Matthias Steiner, however, gave us a more important lesson: that the only unbreakable thing is man himself.