This is an awesome time to be a sports fan. Here at Saint Vincent the Steelers are in camp and our Fall sports teams will begin practices in a couple of weeks. The entire Pittsburgh region is abuzz with the Pirates playing meaningful baseball and contending for their division. At the center of the world’s stage for the next two weeks are the Olympics. While football (that is, American football) and baseball are not played at the Olympics, a number of other sports have an opportunity for some prime-time coverage. Both my sons swim and my daughter plays field hockey, so I am delighted that they can watch athletes in these sports compete at the highest level. The Olympics show us what is possible for humans to achieve, individually and in teams, in the pool or gym, on the track or the pitch.
One of the most impress examples so far in this Olympics is the incredible clean and jerk of North Korea’s Om Yun Chol on Sunday. A bit under five feet tall and weighing 123 pounds, he lifted an Olympic record 370 pounds from the ground to over his head. His name is now recorded on a very small list of athletes who have lifted three times their body weight. This lift combined with his earlier snatch of 275 pounds also won him the gold medal despite being seated 11th in the competition and not even lifting in the same group as the favorites.
Imagine the explosiveness necessary to get 370 pounds moving upwards while Om then quickly propels his body under the bar to catch the weight on the front of his shoulders as he squats beneath the weight. From this position he then uses his leg muscles to stand up with the weight. Next he launches the weight over his head and again drives himself under the bar locking his arms so he can lift the weight with his legs. Physics tell us that the elite athletes executing the Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, are exerting the most power of any athlete in any sport. That is, they are doing the most work in the shortest period of time. Power measures the rate energy is expended and is defined as force multiplied by distance (this combination is called work) divided by time. In this case, the force Om applied is the weight he lifted, the distance is how far the bar moved, and the time is how long it took for him to move the weight. In those moments when Om needed to explosively apply force on the bar he was putting forth several horsepower (or thousands of Watts) over a fraction of a second. To accomplish this obviously takes years of training but also a mental toughness and courage manifest in Om’s willingness to dive under a weight three times heavier than him and hold it over his head. Moments like this can redefine what is possible.
Last blog, I spoke of NASA’s recent discoveries and the novel engineering to attempt the exhilarating landing of the Curiosity rover coming up in the early morning of August 6th. Similarly, this Olympics, like those before it, have seen many records fall. In both cases, the frontiers of human achievement are being pushed forward. Our Creator has endowed us with not just the capacity but also the will to achieve more than we have in the past, push past milestones like running a four minute mile or lifting three times one’s body weight overhead, and to explore where we have not been before. The Olympics also illustrates what we can be when we come together as a people, not just to cheer for our nation, but also to recognize the shared values of all humanity. To recognize that regardless of the country each athlete represents, our differences are minuscule when compared to what is common among us all. Let’s hope and pray that the Olympic spirit keeps burning in our hearts long after the London cauldron is extinguished.
Dr. John Smetanka,
Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.