Every two years an Olympics rolls around, and so many people get caught up in how many medals their country can win.
I'm one of them because my country (USA) is always atop the overall medal standings. Although I love to see the USA rack up the medals, it's not the only reason I watch the Olympic Games.
After watching the Beijing Games almost every day, I've come to realize something. Winning the gold medal is good, winning the silver and bronze is great too, but maybe just competing in front of the whole world with great athletes is the best feeling of all.
Every athlete dreams of winning gold, but for a lot of them it's just not possible because the competition is so much better than they are.
There are 206 countries competing in Beijing, but only about 72 countries have won at least one medal of any color. Do the 134 other countries care that their athletes walk away without the hardware?
I would guess 'no', because their country's patrons know that they have represented the country with honor and distinction.
Here are some brief story lines, where some medals were actually won, that got me not caring so much about the overall medal count.
Lopez Lomong (USA) - Lomong was born in the Sudan and his family fled the country for Kenya after a militia attack in 1991. He was separated from his family and spent the next ten years in a refugee camp run by Catholic missionaries. He eventually made it to America to live with a foster family in New York.
Lomong made it to Beijing to compete in the men's 1500m in track and field. He never made is out of the semifinals and his chance of winning a medal was gone. Sure, Lomong wanted to win gold, or any medal, but sometimes it isn't in the cards. Lomong is just thankful that he is alive today and that he got a chance to compete in the Olympics, where he made his country, family and friends proud.
Oksana Chusovitina (Germany) - At 33 years old, she is the oldest gymnast competing in Beijing. Chusovitina moved to Germany after there was no suitable facility that could treat her son's leukemia. She stayed on as a member of the German gymnastic team with a friend as the coach who persuaded her to come to Germany. Chusovitina went on to win a silver in the individual vault competition. More importantly, the sport that that she loves, managed to save her son's life.
Women's 10m Air Pistol - Days after Natalia Poderina's home country of Russia invaded Nino Salukvadze's Georgia, they both found themselves on the medal stand of the event final. Poderina won the silver and Salukvadze the bronze, and the two shared a hug on the medal podium. That gesture not only showed those two countries, but everybody, that it's easier to have friends rather than enemies.
Natalie du Toit (South Africa) - Du Toit was in a horrible accident in her homeland and had to have her left leg amputated jump above the knee. She was entered in the women's 10km open water marathon, where she finished 16th, in just over two hours. Du Toit is an inspiration to whoever has heard her story. She too, was disappointed by her finish, and vowed to return for London in 2012, but just competing in Beijing was accomplishment enough for her.
There are plenty of other stories like those, but these are the four that stood out to me, I'm sure 2010 in Vancouver will bring about many stories just like they did in Beijing.
Winning gold is absolutely the best feeling an athlete can have, but sometimes just having the opportunity to march behind your country's flag in the Opening Ceremonies, knowing that you are surrounded by the world's best athletes is a pretty good feeling too.
So the next time you find yourself looking at how many gold medals your country's athletes have won, just remember one thing, the Olympics mean more than just winning medals.