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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.

 

IOC creates 3-person panel to have final say on Russian participation

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 30: IOC President Thomas Bach during the IOC Executive Board Meeting on July 30, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A three-person International Olympic Committee panel will make a final ruling on which individual Russian athletes are allowed to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Games.

The IOC’s ruling executive board, meeting Saturday for the final time before the opening of the games next Friday, said the panel will decide on the entry of Russian athletes whose names have been forwarded to compete by their international sports federations and approved by an independent arbitrator.

“This panel will decide whether to accept or reject that final proposal,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We want to make it absolutely clear that we are the ones making the final call.”

The move comes amid a doping scandal that has led to the exclusion of more than 100 Russian athletes connected to state-sponsored cheating. More than 250 Russian athletes have been cleared to compete by the federations.

The panel will have to make its ruling before the opening ceremony, just six days away.

“We’re working on a very, very tight timeline,” Adams said. “It has to be finished by Friday at the very latest.”

The panel will consist of three executive board members: Turkey’s Ugur Erdener, chairman of the IOC medical commission; Germany’s Claudia Bokel, head of the athletes’ commission; and Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a vice president of the modern pentathlon federation.

Adams said the panel will review every athlete cleared by the federations, but would not reopen the cases of those who have been barred. An arbitrator from the Court of Arbitration for Sport will make an initial ruling before the final decision goes to the IOC panel.

“This review board panel will look at every single decision, every single athlete, to make sure the IOC is happy with the decision that’s been taken,” Adams said. “It’s very important that the IOC makes the final decision based on independent advice.”

Saturday’s meeting came less than a week after the IOC board decided not to ban Russia’s entire team from the games because of state-sponsored doping. Rejecting calls by more than a dozen anti-doping agencies for a complete ban on Russia, the IOC left it to the federations to vet which athletes could compete or not.

The Russians banned so far include the 67 track and field athletes barred as a whole by the IAAF, and more than 30 others rejected under new IOC eligibility criteria. Russia’s eight-member weightlifting team was kicked out of the games on Friday for what the international federation called “extremely shocking” doping results that brought the sport into “disrepute.”

The IOC has been roundly criticized by anti-doping bodies, athletes groups and Western media for not imposing a total ban on Russia. Pressure for the full sanction followed a World Anti-Doping Agency report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren that accused Russia’s sports ministry of overseeing a vast doping conspiracy involving the country’s summer and winter sports athletes.

IOC President Thomas Bach has defended the decision as one that protects individual athletes who have not been implicated in doping.

Rio’s preparations, meanwhile, remain clouded on several fronts, including budget cuts, water pollution, slow ticket sales, and concerns over crime and the Zika virus. The games come with the suspended president awaiting an impeachment trial and the country gripped by a severe recession.

But Bach and the IOC board remained upbeat following a final progress report by organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman, including details of the opening ceremony at the Maracana stadium.

“We can’t reveal any secrets but the organizing committee tell us that the ceremony will have Brazilian soul and enchant the world,” Adams said.

Bach gave the organizers a final pep talk ahead of the first games in South America.

“He thinks it’s going to be a great games,” Adams said. “He made that very, very clear. He gave a very rousing thank you to the team and said, ‘Now you must concentrate on delivery, delivery, delivery.”

Also Saturday, the IOC board granted full recognition to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation. It had received provisional recognition in 2014. Saturday’s decision marks another step toward potential future inclusion in the Winter Games.

MORE: Doping investigator ‘inundated with requests’ for more info on Russians

Bryan brothers pull out of Olympics, won’t defend gold medal

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04:  (L-R) Silver medalist Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, gold medalist Mike Bryan and Bob Bryan of the United States and bronze medalist Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet of France pose on the podium during the medal ceremony after the Men's Doubles Tennis final match on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on August 4, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Bob and Mike Bryan have pulled out of the Rio Games, less than a week before they were to begin defending their men’s doubles Olympic gold medal.

The Americans made the announcement on their Facebook page, citing their “family’s health,” but not specifically concerns with the Zika virus, which has caused many other tennis players and golfers to withdraw.

“After countless hours of deliberation Mike and I have decided to forego the Rio Olympics. Though we’d love to compete again, as husbands and fathers, our family’s health is now our top priority,” they wrote.

The 38-year-old identical twin brothers are the second-ranked men’s pair in the world. The U.S. Tennis Association is looking into replacements, according to the Associated Press.

The Bryan brothers defeated Michael Llodra and France Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France for gold four years ago in London. At the 2008 Beijing Games, they fell to Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the semifinals before knocking off Llodra and Arnaud Clement for bronze.

The Bryans were the No. 1 seed in both 2008 and ’12.

After winning gold in London, Bob and Mike went on to collect titles at the next four Grand Slams (2012 U.S. Open, 2013 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon). The brothers have won a record total of 16 Grand Slam titles together.

MORE: Tomas Berdych joins growing list of tennis players skipping Rio