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.

 

Tori Bowie does not want to double at world champs

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Add Tori Bowie to the list of sprinters not looking to double at the world championships in August.

Bowie won the 100m and finished third in the 200m at the USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

That put her on the U.S. team for worlds in London in both sprints.

But Bowie, who earned Rio 100m silver and 200m bronze, was exhausted after four days of racing in Sacramento heat that eclipsed 110 degrees.

“I for sure don’t want to do the double [at worlds],” Bowie said Sunday. “I just wanted to give myself an option [to race the 100m or the 200m].”

Bowie said she and her coaches will probably decide her racing schedule for worlds in the next two to three weeks.

“More than anything I wanted to try to get this 100m right and try to achieve a gold medal somewhere,” Bowie said, according to TeamUSA.org. “I don’t have a gold medal yet individually, so that’s my main concern right now.”

If Bowie drops the 100m, Olympian Morolake Akinosun is in line to take her spot. If she drops the 200m, it’s Ariana Washington.

“I already experienced that, I did the double in Rio,” Bowie said. “I collected my two medals that I wanted to collect in both events. Right now, I’m satisfied.”

Deajah Stevens and Christian Coleman also made the U.S. team in both the 100m and 200m and are expected to compete in both events.

Meanwhile, both Olympic 200m champions — Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson — are expected to sit out the 200m in London to focus on the 100m.

World 200m silver medalist Justin Gatlin, 2012 Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix and LaShawn Merritt all pulled out of the 200m at USATF Outdoors, ruling out world championships doubles.

Gatlin doubled in 2015. Felix doubled in 2011 (200m and 400m) and tried to for Rio but finished fourth in the 200m at the Olympic Trials. Merritt raced the 200m and 400m in Rio.

Both Olympic 400m champions — Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa and Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas — plan to also race the 200m at worlds.

MORE: Centrowitz recovers from ‘rock bottom’ to make world team

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World Taekwondo Federation drops acronym due to ‘negative connotations’

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The World Taekwondo Federation dropped its “WTF” acronym due to “negative connotations” and changed its logo and its name to World Taekwondo.

“In the digital age, the acronym of our federation has developed negative connotations unrelated to our organization,” World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue said in a press release. “It was important that we rebranded to better engage with our fans. World Taekwondo is distinctive and simple to understand.”

The move was almost two years in the making.

In December 2015, World Taekwondo said it planned to lessen the use of the WTF acronym for marketing purposes, according to Inside the Games, but at the time did not plan to fully change the name.

MORE: Olympic taekwondo star accused of sexual abuse

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