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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.

 

Martin Kaymer motivated by Olympics in PGA Championship run

SPRINGFIELD, NJ - JULY 28: Martin Kaymer of Germany plays his shot from the seventh tee  during the first round of the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club on July 28, 2016 in Springfield, New Jersey.  (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
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SPRINGFIELD, N.J. (AP) — The chance to compete at the Olympics can’t come soon enough for Martin Kaymer.

While the top four players in the world and 21 men overall will not be part of the Rio Games, the 31-year-old German has been thinking about it all summer.

Calling out Michael Phelps as one of the best Olympians he wants to see and meet, Kaymer sounds as though he’s looking forward to going to Rio as much as his ongoing run at the PGA Championship.

Rio isn’t so much as distraction, rather a motivation.

“It is so, so, inspiring, and I really look forward to go, experience that, and I don’t know how I will feel,” Kaymer said. “I’m sure it’s going to take a couple weeks after that to reflect on all your experiences.”

Going to Rio has inspired Kaymer’s latest hot streak. He shot a 4-under 66 in the opening round on Thursday and followed with a 69 in the second round to reach 5 under.

The two-time major champion, birdied three of his last four holes Friday.

“I think I placed myself in a very good spot,” Kaymer said. “Who knows where the leader is going to be by the end of the day. I shot a good score yesterday, a very good round today. So it’s a good position to be in in a major championship.”

After his opening round on Thursday, Kaymer said he is looking forward to seeing the best athletes in their sports at the Olympics — and not only the Germans.

“I watched Lionel Messi a couple times when Barcelona played against Bayern Munich and I went to the stadium, just to see the class, the natural talent of an athlete, is amazing,” Kaymer said. “You know, you can work as hard as you want but you are never going to get there.”

Kaymer said especially Phelps has an invitation to come watch him play at Rio.

“He can walk inside the ropes, I’m sure,” he said. “That is just so great to watch them and just – sometimes it’s funny how good the athletes are. Because you compare yourself, how bad you are, because obviously you tried the sport, and I look forward to that.”

Kaymer went into this week at No. 51 in the world ranking, having not won since 2014.

Interestingly enough, it’s in the even-numbered years when Kaymer has played some of his best golf and 2016 is starting to look up after two promising rounds at Baltusrol.

“I’m more the kind of player who has some really nice highs in my career, and then I have some time to enjoy it again,” Kaymer said. “Then all of a sudden, you know, you create a little bit more inspiration from something, and then you play better again.”

In his first appearance of 2008, Kaymer won the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and then added a win in his homeland at the BMW International Open.

In 2010, Kaymer won his first major – the PGA Championship – after he won a three-hole playoff over Bubba Watson.

One of Europe’s heroes in 2012, Kaymer made a 6-foot putt on the last hole at the Ryder Cup to defeat Steve Stricker and secure the last point needed to achieve a stunning comeback and retain the Ryder Cup.

In 2014, Kaymer dominated at Pinehurst No. 2 for an eight-shot victory in the U.S. Open, one month after winning The Players Championship against the strongest and deepest field in golf. Kaymer joined Tiger Woods as the only players to win a U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Players Championship and WGC event before their 30th birthday.

“I think in general, you grow, not only as a golf player but as a person, as well, and through that success, through the two major wins that I had, I think you grow a lot more,” Kaymer said. “You take things a little bit more – you value them a little bit more, and therefore, somehow it calms me down.”

After struggling in the first part of the 2016 season, Kaymer is headed into the weekend rounds at the PGA Championship back on the upswing.

MORE: Bubba Watson, U.S. golfers get pep talk from Olympic legend Dan Jansen

Venezuela sets Olympic basketball roster with zero NBA players

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 29: John Cox #6 of Venezuela puts up a shot over teammmate Gregory Echenique #0 and DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States during a pre-Olympic exhibition game at United Center on July 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The United States defeated Venezuela 80-45. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Venezuela has set its men’s basketball roster for the Rio Olympics, and it will not include any NBA players.

Greivis Vasquez of the Brooklyn Nets was hoping to make his Olympic debut, but was ruled out by his NBA team on Friday.

“After a great deal of consultation with the Nets and team doctors, I have been advised that unfortunately it will be necessary for me to withdrawal from Olympic competition. … the medical staff feels that it is essential that I devote this time to work towards getting healthy for the upcoming NBA season,” Vasquez said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Vasquez underwent bone spur surgery in January. He had been training with the Venezuela national team and traveled to its exhibition games, but appeared briefly in only one game.

Venezuela set its roster Friday night after an 80-45 defeat to the highly-favored U.S. team. It is the 11th of 12 teams to announce its 12-man squad, leaving only Nigeria to determine its roster before Monday’s deadline.

The 12-player Venezuela roster for Rio:
Nestor Colmenares
John Cox
David Cubillan
Gregory Echenique
Windi Graterol
Heissler Guillent
Dwight Lewis
Miguel Marriaga
Anthony Perez
Miguel Ruiz
Gregory Vargas
Jose Vargas

Venezuela’s men’s team qualified for its first Olympics since 1992 by winning the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship, upsetting Canada in the semifinals and Argentina in the final.

Venezuela opens the Rio Games against Serbia on Aug. 6, then takes on the U.S. two days later.

MORE: Spain Olympic basketball roster includes 7 NBA players