“Team USA reminds the world why America always sets the gold standard: We’re a nation of immigrants that finds strength in our diversity and unity in our national pride…In a season of intense politics, let’s cherish this opportunity to come together around one flag. In a time of challenge around the world, let’s appreciate the peaceful competition and sportsmanship we’ll see…between rivals who know we share a common humanity. Let’s honor the courage it takes, not only to cross the finish line first, but merely to stand in the starting blocks. And let’s see in ourselves the example they set – proving that no matter where you’re from, with determination and discipline, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.” — President Barack Obama, Weekly Address, August 6, 2016
For 16 days, the eyes and the attention of the world were trained on the drama of victory and defeat in Rio de Janeiro. At a time when intolerance, conflict and division invade our headlines on a daily basis, the greatest athletes from 206 countries gathered at the Games—held for the first time in a South American country—and reminded us that tolerance, peace and unity are real ambitions that can be achieved, even in the heat of intense competition.
Team USA set a gold standard for diversity in Rio. From the balance beam to the swimming lanes, our country’s 555 athletes represented the gender, ethnic and religious diversity that has always made America great. Team USA featured more women athletes than male athletes (292 to 263). Ibtihaj Muhammed, a Muslim-American fencer who went on to win a bronze medal, became the first Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab. Our women’s gymnastics team—also known as the “Final Five”—was the most racially and ethnically diverse in the team’s history. A Kenyan-born American, who is a sergeant in the United States Army and has a brother serving in Afghanistan, competed for our nation in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. American lightweight boxer Carlos Balderas scored an emotional victory in Rio, representing our country all the way to the quarter-finals. The 19-year-old, a first generation Mexican-American, dedicated his victory to his grandfather and uncles who came to America and labored in California’s strawberry fields to achieve a better life for their family.
Team USA’s 121 medals are the most ever for a U.S. team in a non-boycotted Games, and individual achievement was everywhere to be seen. Winning five gold medals and a silver in Rio, swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 28, and holds the record for most Olympic gold medals, with 23. The two gold medals she earned in Rio made runner Allyson Felix the only female track and field athlete to win six Olympic gold medals. And Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast of all time, set a new American record for most gold medals in women’s gymnastics at a single Olympics. She was the first gymnast since 1984 to win four gold medals at a single games.
These stories, these achievements—some of them historic—these athletes, who train night and day and sacrifice everything for the love of their sport and our nation, could not exist in an America that builds walls. Many of the inspirational stories we’ve watched unfold—and most importantly, our children can now take for granted—could not exist in an America that bars people from our country based on their religious belief. The winning mosaic of America we all watched walk in the Opening Ceremony’s parade of nations could not exist in an America that shuns diversity and prizes above all the forced and inevitable homogeneity of ideological screen tests.
I believe the power of our Olympic victory lies in its representation of what we as a nation are constantly striving to be: inclusive, tolerant, peaceful, united under one flag and committed to excellence at home and abroad. There are real problems and concerns we face as a nation and we must remain committed to solving them and keeping our country safe, but tolerance, diversity and camaraderie are not problems, and if the Olympics are any indication, they are, in fact, our strengths.
Our athletes are back now and they should now how proud we are of them—all of them. Team USA returns with 121 medals: 46 gold, 37 silver and 38 bronze, the most medals of any nation, and the most it has ever won at any Summer Games since 1984. President Barack Obama, our nation’s first Black president, can add this factoid to his legacy: with a total of 289 medals under both his terms, Team USA brought home more Olympic medals during his presidency than any other presidency. The president with the second highest tally of Olympic medals is Ronald Regan with 282 medals.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Summer Olympics, and my hope is that one of them will be that America is great and always wins when we embrace, nurture and support the talent and skills of all Americans in all arenas.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.