“Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

–Amelia Earhart, quoted in a VISA 2014 Olympics advertisement 

The Olympic Games are many things: a spectacle. A political statement. A massive expense. A chance for elite athletes to show their mettle. A non-athlete’s main access to the intricacies of unfamiliar sports.

I, for one, adore the Olympics. Since the first athlete strode into the arena in Sochi, Russia, I’ve been glued to my television, catching every moment of Olympic coverage I can find. Partly, I’m hooked on the thrill of watching spectacular athletes excel in their life’s work. And partly, I can’t resist the urge to people-watch.

Students of human nature, sit back and watch the Olympics. Peek at athletes, coaches, and fans from dozens of countries. Eavesdrop on the Canadian curling team lining up their final stone. Chuckle at the enthusiastic Opening Ceremony entrance of Venezuela’s sole athlete. Enjoy the flags in hands, flags in hats, flags on cheeks, stars in eyes.

It’s harder to people-watch when the athletes are swathed in baggy snowboarding parkas, speed-skating hoods, and darkened ski masks. But there’s always that moment after the finish line when helmets and face guards are pulled off, hair is shaken free, and the figures on the screen transform from elite athletes into real people.

Watch their body language after that finish line moment. Head down or up? Are those shoulders slumped in disappointment or exhausted relief? Was that a hug of consolation or congratulation? Is he disappointed with silver? Is she ecstatic with bronze?

Like Amelia Earhart, these Olympians know the hazards of their work. Skaters face skull-cracking ice and flying metal blades; lugers zoom at 80 miles per hour. Hockey players lose teeth, skiers blow out knees. These people overcome ACL reconstruction surgeries, pulled muscles, drained savings accounts, political unrest. They lose or win by breaths and handspans and flinches. Shaun White succumbs to a choppy snowboarding halfpipe. Russian figure-skating superstar Evgeni Plushenko withdraws from competition when old back injuries become unbearable. Commentators constantly toss around the phrase “Olympic history.” The pressure is gargantuan.

But in Sochi, Olympians still try. Because they can. Because they’ve dreamed about it. Because they’ve trained for it. Because they feel the weight of a nation’s pride. Because they love what they’re doing. Because there’s nowhere in the world they’d rather be.

When American figure skater Jeremy Abbott crashed hard during his short program, the crowd tried to cheer him back to his feet. It worked—Jeremy picked himself up, finished his program to thunderous applause, and went on to skate beautifully the following night.

Dutch twins Michel and Ronald Mulder hoped that one of them could end their nation’s gold-medal drought in the 500m speed skating competition. Not only did Michel win gold, but he shared the podium with both Ronald and their teammate, Jan Smeekens.

Swedish skier Charlotte Kalla plowed through a 25-second deficit in her final leg of the cross-country relay, coming from deep third to snatch gold.

Following a heart-wrenching miscarriage, American Noelle Pikus-Pace’s husband urged her to pick up her skeleton sled and come out of retirement to train for Sochi. After a silver-medal race, she promptly leapt into the stands to celebrate with the family that has supported her for so long.

And, 80 years after Amelia Earhart crossed the Atlantic Ocean, German Carina Vogt assessed the hazards, took a deep breath, soared off the ski jump, and kissed the sky. When she touched down, she earned the first gold medal ever awarded to a female Olympic ski jumper.

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers…and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”

—Amelia Earhart

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