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Why the Olympics matter

By Robert A. Kaufman, Special to CNN
  • Robert Kaufman says there are many reasons to cheer Olympics, which begin today
  • Kaufman cites sportsmanship shown when Norwegian ski coach helped rival
  • Bjørnar Håkensmoen gave ski pole to Canadian skier whose pole broke
  • Kaufman: Gesture is highest level of sportsmanship in a world grown cynical about sports

Editor's note: Robert A. Kaufman, a recent Brown University graduate, is on a Fulbright scholarship in Norway. He is also learning how to cross-country ski.

(CNN) -- Athletes from 97 nations will march in Vancouver tonight at the Opening Ceremony of the XXI Winter Olympic Games. Turn on your TV. Watch and cheer.

Cheer for the sportsmanship and spirit shown at this highest level of competition among the world's nations.

A fine example of this sportsmanship happened four years ago, when a ski pole, a race in Italy and maple syrup came together. It started when Norwegian cross-country ski coach Bjørnar Håkensmoen performed an extraordinary act.

On February 14, 2006, Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner began the women's team sprint competition in Turin with something to prove. After having placed no higher than eighth in four events at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, Renner was determined to improve her performance in Turin. But in the middle of the final heat, something terrible happened. One of her ski poles broke.

Suddenly, all seemed lost. Four years of intense training for this 17-minute race were about to amount to nothing. Then Håkensmoen saw what happened.

Without giving it a second thought, he handed the Canadian skier the Norwegian team's spare pole. Renner and teammate Beckie Scott charged forward to finish in second place, earning a silver medal. Norway ended up fourth -- without a medal.

An appreciative Renner thanked Håkensmoen with a bottle of wine. The Canadian people, touched by the selflessness of the Norwegian coach, established Project Maple Syrup, an organization designed to solicit donations of a Canadian national treasure. In all, 5.2 tons of maple syrup (7,400 cans) were shipped across the Atlantic to Håkensmoen and then on to Norwegians. Canadians also sent thank-you notes and recipes.

In an instant, Håkensmoen reminded all those who were fortunate enough to witness his act of sportsmanship that the rings on the Olympic flag, intended to represent a color of every flag of every nation in the world, are interlocked and interdependent.

The Olympics remind the world of the folly in thinking that anyone can stand alone. There are times when all people and all nations need a little help, whether that help comes in the form of a charitable donation, a word of encouragement or even a spare ski pole.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Håkensmoen's gesture that day was how unremarkable it was to him. When asked about his action by The Associated Press, Håkensmoen replied, "It was natural for me to do it, and I think anyone should have done it." Håkensmoen's act demonstrates why the Olympic Games matter: because sometimes -- in spite of skyrocketing salaries for professional athletes, increased illegal drug usage and waning loyalty between fans and their teams -- sometimes sports get it right.

Today, cheer not just for the United States but for the other 96 countries as well. Cheer because any time so many nations congregate with common goals, under common rules and in peace ought to be cause for celebration.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Kaufman.