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After cross-country crash in Sochi, a lesson in crying

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OCHI — Here’s a tricky one: Why do people cry when they are happy? This comes up a lot at the Olympics, as my wife Margo will break into tears at pretty much any point, including during the commercials. A couple of weeks ago, after watching figure skater Jason Brown pull off a near-flawless program at the trials, she broke down in tears. The best part was that when telling us about it later, she broke down in tears again.

This column will lead, by the way, to a story that definitely will make Margo cry again.

Why do we cry when we are happy? It turns out this is actually quite an involved question. I have an emigo — an email friend — named Indre Viskontas, who is both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, which makes her, more or less, the most amazing person on Earth. She is also a new mother, so she was up in the middle of the night to offer a pretty involved answer to this question.

The neurological reason we cry when happy, she says, relates to the “parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the autonomic nervous system that calms us down.” Which is exactly what I was thinking? One theory is that the system cannot really differentiate between different emotions; it only knows when it is emotionally overloaded. So the emotion could be fear, sadness, anger, pain or joy and if that emotion is intense enough it can trigger tears as a release.

“Usually, crying from joy comes after a stressful event – and signals the switch from fight or flight to relief and relaxation,” Viskontas says. “The more stressful the event, the greater the opposite response when the stress is relieved.”

That explains why everyone cried at the end of “Toy Story 3.” You know (spoiler alert), the toys were almost incinerated and then they were destined for the attic and instead they ended up at that little girls house, and Woody was going to go with Andy to college but instead … Okay, I have to stop now.

VIDEO: Broken ski doesn’t stop Gafarov from finishing

The more fascinating question is the psychological one. Why do we cry at all? There are disagreements. Viskontas says one theory is that crying is our body’s response to a perception of helplessness. You have to stretch a bit, though, to connect that with happy crying. A second theory is that crying is tied to other variable personality traits. This makes a lot of sense, since different people are more or less likely to cry.

But I think the most interesting theory is that crying connects us with each other. In this theory, we cry as a way to bond, a way to link our sadness or anger or fear or joy with the world. This idea speaks to me. Happy crying seems to me to come from a deep connection with someone or something, whether it’s Woody and Buzz getting a new child to play with at the end of “Toy Story 3,” or Dan Jansen winning that speed skating gold medal after a career of heartbreak, or that “Thank You Mom” commercial that shows mothers raising children who become Olympians. It’s as if simple happiness is not big enough to express the connection with something graceful or kind or plainly decent. So people cry.

That connection is particularly powerful for many at the Olympics. Everyone knows that the Olympic Games overflow with all sorts of negative things — corruption, waste, greed, on and on — but there is a strain of innocence and wonder, too. This is why so many people around the world care. The athletes, mostly, are not millionaires. They are regular people you know, people who have real jobs, people who sacrifice because they truly love their sports and deeply believe in an Olympic ideal they formed when they were children.

Russia’s Anton Gafarov is this kind of athlete. He’s a 27-year-old cross-country skier, and this is his first Olympics. He was not really a medal contender, but being able to compete here was incredibly important to him. “I couldn’t imagine my life without skiing,” he told reporters. “For me, skiing is like breathing.”

VIDEO: Cross country sprint has crazy finish

But Gafarov wanted to finish the race. So he pulled himself along. The sprint lasts about three and a half minutes. And so when the others had finished, he was still in the middle of the course, fighting his way step by step. It just didn’t seem like he would get there.

And then someone raced up to him. He was carrying a ski. That was Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach. Wadsworth is actually an American — he’s a three-time U.S. Olympian — and he has a reputation as an open and warm person. He had taken the job to help build Canada’s fledgling cross-country team (no Canadian man has ever won an Olympic cross-country medal). Wadsworth’s team didn’t do too well on Tuesday — not one Canadian reaching the semifinal — and he wasn’t in the best mood.

But then, while rushing out to catch the end of the semifinal, he saw Gafarov trying to move forward. “It was like watching an animal stuck in a trap,” Wadsworth told the Toronto Star. Instinctively, he found a spare ski, and he rushed down to Gafarov.

Neither man said a word. There wasn’t anything to say. Gafarov stopped. Wadsworth kneeled down and removed the old ski. He put the new one on. And Gafarov took off toward the end.

Gafarov finished the race long after everyone else. But he finished.

“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Wadsworth said. He did not really understand why this was a story. Anyone would do it, he said.

But this is the thing, isn’t it? Anyone might wish they did it. But only one man actually did.

And right now, back in America, Margo is crying because – well, because maybe it is a way to connect with people and with something beautiful. Or maybe it’s just a parasympathetic nervous system response to a sweet story. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before the Olympics make her cry again.

 

Michael Phelps eyes at least three events at Olympic Trials

Michael Phelps
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Michael Phelps expects to swim the 100m and 200m butterfly and the 200m individual medley at the U.S. Olympic Trials in four weeks, but he will be entered in more events, his coach, Bob Bowman, confirmed Tuesday.

Phelps plans to swim just those three events at the June 26-July 3 trials in Omaha, according to Sports Illustrated.

However, Phelps could also swim the 100m and 200m freestyles at the Olympic Trials to post a time fast enough not necessarily to make the Olympic team (top two at trials) but to earn a place on the 4x100m and 4x200m free relays for a fourth straight Games.

“I think he needs to put up a time, sometime, to let us know that he’s on that level [in the 100m and 200m freestyles],” Bowman, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s team and thus an important relay selector, said two weeks ago.

Bowman said Tuesday that Phelps will be entered in more than the 100m and 200m fly and 200m IM at trials. But Phelps could scratch out of any event before finals or before preliminary heats.

Bowman said Phelps could theoretically try to make the Olympic team in more than three individual events.

As for those main three, it’s no surprise. Those are the three events Phelps focused on at his biggest meet of 2015, the U.S. Championships in August. Each time, he clocked the fastest time in the world for the year, making him the Olympic favorite in all three.

If Phelps intends to swim three individual events at the Rio Games, he’s looking at his thinnest Olympic slate since his debut at the Sydney 2000 Games at age 15 (one event, 200m butterfly, fifth place).

Phelps swam five individual events each in 2004 and 2008 and four in 2012, dropping the 200m freestyle for the London Games and the 400m individual medley altogether after finishing fourth in that event in London.

Phelps will race this weekend at what is expected to be his final pre-trials tune-up meet in Austin, Texas. He is entered in the 100m and 200m free, the 100m butterfly and the 200m IM.

MORE: U.S. swim stars spread across three Olympic Trials tune-up meets

World champion wrestler from Russia cedes Olympic spot after brawl

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MOSCOW (AP) — A two-time wrestling World champion said Tuesday he is giving up his place at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after a brawl marred a Russian qualifying tournament.

Viktor Lebedev was competing against Ismail Musukayev in a semifinal bout at the Russian nationals on Friday when Musukayev was angered by refereeing calls against him and shoved Lebedev.

Musukayev’s supporters and coaches charged into the ring, prompting a scuffle that was broken up by riot police (video here). Wrestlers from Musukayev’s home region of Dagestan then boycotted the tournament in protest at the standard of refereeing, causing a nationwide scandal.

Lebedev told local news outlet News.Ykt on Tuesday that he is withdrawing from the Olympic team as “a matter of honor” because he feels officials gave him favorable calls in front of his home crowd in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.

“Let’s say I win Olympic gold. I don’t doubt that I could win it,” he said. “Even if I were to climb onto that podium with the gold, I wouldn’t have those emotions. I wouldn’t be especially happy that my dream had come true.”

Lebedev said Musukayev had been wronged but insisted his opponent had been wrong to start the brawl. “You can’t behave that way regardless of how the judging goes for you,” he said.

Lebedev can be replaced on the team by another Russian in the 57kg class, though he was the favorite to go to the Rio Olympics after winning World Championships bronze and European Games gold last year.

Wrestling is traditionally a source of great pride for many of Russia’s ethnic minority groups, including in Lebedev’s Arctic home region of Yakutia and in Dagestan, a province in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus otherwise known for its Islamist insurgency.

Competition for a place on the Russian national team, one of the world’s best, is fierce and in recent years various domestic competitions have been marred by brawls between fans from different regions and ethnic groups.

Earlier this month, a wrestler from Chechnya hit his opponent after the end of the bout and some of his team, including a man with a pistol, rushed into the ring in support.

MORE: Eight Russians positive in 2012 Olympic retests