For 21 days in August, more than 10,000 athletes from around the world will compete in the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. While they come in pursuit of personal dreams, they will also represent their respective countries. For spectators and supporters from the more than 200 countries participating, the Olympics are a chance to cheer for their countrymen and women. For the athletes themselves, national pride is a powerful motivator. VOA's Brian Padden has the story, with additional reporting by Nico Colombant and Kari Barber in Dakar, Michael O’Sullivan in Los
Angeles, and Jim Teeple in the Palestinian Territory. (Part 5 of 5)
Aminata Diouf will soon abandon her beauty salon business to represent Senegal in track and field at the Beijing Olympics. This will be her third trip to the Olympics. She says the experience is always emotional. "I feel like an ambassador, who is very proud. It is this motivation that makes you want to train at two hundred percent of your abilities. The goal is to satisfy an entire nation," she says.
While the Olympic charter stresses peaceful competition, it is also a time of surging national pride. Olympic historian David Wallechinsky says for years the International Olympic Committee tried to limit the focus on nationalism by refusing to release national medal totals.
"I mean, in the main press center, everybody is creating their own national medal total. So finally they said, 'OK we are going to put a billboard up to show you the national medal total, but we are not going to talk about it. You can do whatever you want.' And then finally it's even on the website of the International Olympic Committee," said Wallechinsky.
Patriotism can give athletes a sense of purpose beyond personal achievement.
Palestinian sprinter Ghadeer Ghroof, 17, says she hopes that by competing in the Olympics she can bring international attention to the plight of her people. "I am going to represent Palestine, a country that is considered by many to be an irrelevant place. It is not irrelevant. It has people like us - educated people. It has concerned and educated people, and I am going to prove that to them at the Olympic games," she said.
Pride in an Olympic athletes can unite, if only for a short time, an entire nation.
In the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Iraqi soccer team's unexpected success, making it all the way to the semi-finals, became a symbol of unity and hope to a nation in the clutch of daily violence. Former Parlympian John Register works with the U.S. Olympic Committee's program for physically handicapped athletes. He says the Olympics can also be a place of reconciliation for enemies.
"The greatest vision I could have, would be somebody that is injured and becomes a Paralympics athlete from the United States and somebody who is injured and becomes a Paralympics athlete from Iraq or Afghanistan sitting down at a future Olympic games sharing their stories," said Register.
Most Olympic athletes understand that how they conduct themselves at the games will reflect upon their countries. "You have to stand a little bit taller and definitely remember that there's all those other people behind you too," says modern pentathlon athlete Mickey Kelly, who is also a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. "So it's a great way to show your respect back to your country and for me back to the military."
With the eyes of their nations upon them, these athletes say the best they can do is do their best.