The Rio de Janeiro Olympics, though widely panned and publicized as a train wreck-in-waiting since the day they were announced, are finally upon us.

Thank the Lord, thank Jesse Owens, and thank the Greek messenger who breathed his last at the end of that impromptu marathon in 490 B.C., because right now we need it more than ever.

Not in an athletic context. Yes, it’s true, the Red Sox are swooning on the left coast, the Yankees are engaged in a fire sale, Bill Belichick already is swearing at dumb questions, and there isn’t much else going on. It’s a nice diversion from the drudgery of sports talk for a couple weeks.

As a nation, as a world, as a human race, we desperately need to watch people run, throw, row, stroke, kick, tumble, laugh and cry at this moment. The televised reminder that we all harbor the same human frailties, the same creative and competitive spirit, the same capacity for greatness, has rarely if ever been more necessary.

And haven’t these games always provided that dose of reality? They make the world feel significantly smaller and less frightening, if but for the blink of an eye. They have outlasted two world wars, a cold war, an economic depression or six, and all manner of domestic foolishness at every longitude and latitude marker on the globe. Yes, including our own.

It’s almost as if we know this and are afraid it might lead to more unity and a sense of international camaraderie, so we look for reasons to prevent it from happening. Consider that almost every mention of these Olympics that isn’t an NBC commercial is a discussion about the likelihood of an athlete contracting Zika virus or becoming the victim of a terrorist attack.

Real concerns, certainly, but in reality the athletes are in no greater statistical danger than someone who ventures into the tick-infested woods or the busy concert venues of isolated Maine. We all must make the choice to live free or die, as the neighbors to the immediate west have counseled from time immemorial.

Alarm is nothing new. Every Summer Olympics since Munich has been marred by boycott, handwringing about athletes’ safety, and concern that the venues are ill-equipped to handle the crush of competitors and spectators. This chatter has only magnified since the 1996 Atlanta explosion and the fallout from Sept. 11, 2001, yet Athens, Beijing and London averted crisis and the world lived to tell about it.

I predict the same smashing success for Rio, and again, the timing could not be better. America in particular needs the affirmation and the détente from division. We just endured a fortnight of watching our two prevailing political parties celebrate their agendas, even as two-thirds of the country repudiated the ruckus from Cleveland or Philadelphia at every turn of the teleprompter.

We’ve spent a year or more arguing over whose existence matters and constructing figurative walls while debating the merits of literal ones. We treat social cancers with Band-Aid solutions. We employ the same foolish tactics to solve our most galling problems while sincerely, insanely, expecting different results.

Perhaps we don’t deserve a break, but we need one. It isn’t wrong to take one, either, and it isn’t naïve to think, hope and pray that this momentary respite can have farther-reaching consequences. I’m reminded of the NBA stars, past and present, who spend a day every summer at Seeds of Peace Camp in Otisfield. When people swim together in the same water, sweat together on the same playing surface and break bread together in the same village, miracles happen.

Don’t ever underestimate the value of sports in changing lives and resolving conflict by building one relationship at a time. Despite some people’s best attempts to dwell on how high a mountain we still have to climb, there’s no question that athletics have played a role in reducing the volumes of racism and sexism in this country.

Sports are the ultimate equalizer. They’re one of the few tried-and-true endeavors that level life’s playing field without fail. We may look, act, worship or comprehend the cosmos differently, but in the final analysis the Creator endowed each of us with the same bodies, the same appreciation of a job well done, and the same understanding of the universal language of smiles and high-fives.

My advice, then, is to program all the Olympic channels as favorites on your remote. Stay up late. Call in sick. Wrap yourself in the flag a little bit. Get a mite misty-eyed when you hear the anthem and see that banner raised just a few inches higher than the ones on either side.

And don’t be afraid to stand and applaud when someone outfitted in different colors achieves immortality on the world stage. They love these games the way we do. They worry about the future the way we do. They fear that this blue marble is beyond repair the way we do.

These Olympics seem like a fine time to start proving ourselves wrong, while we’re reminded of all the things that are right.

Kalle Oakes was a Sun Journal sportswriter for 27 years. He now covers high school and college sports in Kentucky.

2016 Rio Summer Games coverage

 Get in-depth reporting on the 2016 Summer Games and the athletes with:

  • A section dedicated to the U.S. team
  • Photo and video galleries
  • Interactive graphics
  • Listings of live and televised events

 In addition to the events, coverage includes doping, pollution, Zika virus and Rio culture and politics.

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