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


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 appears in ‘Call of Duty’ trailer

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 11:  Michael Phelps of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Men's 200m Individual Medley Final on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Michael Phelps brandishes weapons in a trailer for the upcoming video game, “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” which is to come out Nov. 4.

Phelps, an avid Call of Duty player, filmed his spot after the Rio Olympics in Long Beach, Calif., according to reports. Actor Danny McBride is also in the 90-second video.

“We were in full getup and full armor,” Phelps said, according to Time magazine. “Where we were shooting was kind of wild. Danny and I were just playing off each other, talking trash. It was really tough to keep a straight face with him just firing off super funny comments left and right. It was fun.”

MORE: Usain Bolt’s obsession with ‘Call of Duty’

Claressa Shields turns professional, sets first fight

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Claressa Maria Shields of the United States celebrates victory over Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands in the Women's Middle (69-75kg) Final Bout on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 6 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Two-time Olympic champion Claressa Shields turned professional, scheduling her first fight on Nov. 19 in Las Vegas.

The fight against a to-be-named opponent will be on the Sergey KovalevAndre Ward undercard. Ward is the last U.S. man to win an Olympic boxing title, at Athens 2004.

“After working hard for so many years and having the honor to represent my country at two Olympic games, I am thrilled to take the next big step in my career, fighting professionally and leading the rise of women’s boxing worldwide,” Shields said in a statement. “There is no better place to begin the journey than to join the biggest fight of the year, Kovalev vs Ward.”

In Rio, Shields, 21, became the first American boxer to repeat as Olympic champion. Her record is 77-1. The middleweight hasn’t lost in more than four years.

She said long before the Rio Games that she hoped to turn pro after them, but this summer amended that to say she hoped to be able to turn pro while still being able to compete in the Olympics in 2020.

“My legacy is what really is important to me,” Shields said last Wednesday, when she said she was unaware about an imminent professional announcement. “It’s about having a game plan before you do something. I don’t want to just go pro and then have one or two fights and then disappear. I actually want to make a platform for women’s boxing.”

Shields said that she has talked with the international boxing federation (AIBA) and USA Boxing since the Rio Olympics about finding a way for her to turn professional and return to fight in a third Olympics in Tokyo.

“The conversation basically was that they definitely would consider making changes for women’s boxing, but they’ve had so many changes in AIBA’s offices that, who knows,” she said. “I’ve always had a pretty great relationship with AIBA. … Being the only American [female] gold medalist, I love the Olympics, I would love to be in Tokyo if I got the opportunity.”

Laila Ali, the most famous women’s pro boxer in history, said she told Shields after the London Olympics she needed to take advantage of any and all opportunities.

“Women’s boxing is a sport that just doesn’t get that much attention,” Ali said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of talent in the sport, but there’s not a lot of promoters behind the women who are boxing. There were a lot more women when I was fighting, but I got all the attention because my last name’s Ali.”

Ali mentioned Ronda Rousey, a fighter who has achieved much more outside of the octagon than either Shields or Ali outside of the ring.

“I’m the daughter of the most famous athlete and man in the world, attractive, can fight, had more titles, had more fights, and I don’t have movies or endorsements or things like that,” Ali said. “But the UFC has a bigger platform than boxing because someone got behind her and said, ‘Let me put some money behind this girl. Let me build her up, make her name known.’ And that’s why she’s able to get those opportunities. So, unless someone’s inspired to do that and get behind some of the women, it’s just not going to happen. It has nothing do with [Shields’] talent, but unfortunately just because you won gold, not everybody else is going to be as excited about that, especially with women’s boxing being so new at the Olympics.”

VIDEO: Claressa Shields congratulated by famous boxing actor