By Evan Berkowitz and Sabrina Pinkney
Sometimes when it’s busy in the gym, wheelchair basketball player Harsh Thakkar says his MedStar NRH Punishers squad gets kicked off the court.
Now, as he expertly wheels around on the dark grey flagstones of CityCenter DC Pavilion, eyeing a hoop nestled among a few flickering leaves, he’s on center court.
“We compete the same as everybody else,” he said, demonstrating his craft as about fifty visitors peruse exhibits related to wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, pole vault and Thakkar’s sport at Events DC’s Olympic Day June 24.
Programs like this are important, said Events DC CEO Gregory O’Dell, because they inspire young Washingtonians’ interest in athletics.
“When you have the opportunity to bring the community together and showcase … what the Olympics mean, then we’re happy to do that,” O’Dell said.
Erik Moses, Events DC’s senior vice president and manager director of sports and entertainment, agreed.
“We have so many young kids out here getting a chance to see and experience Olympic sports up close and personal,” Moses said. “We’re hoping that … everybody gets into theOlympic spirit early.”
Cara Heads Slaughter, an Arlington, Va. weightlifting coach who competed in the 2000 Olympic Games, discussed her pioneer status as a female weightlifter. While the sport’s gender disparities are shifting, Heads Slaughter, who said she was on the first U.S. Olympic weightlifting team for women, was “very aware of the fact that I was, you know, one of the trailblazers.”
She also discussed the stigma surrounding female weightlifting well before she reached world-class level. While her family supported her introduction to strength training as a vehicle for her Track and Field dreams, some classmates weren’t so lucky.
“Strength training helped me earn a scholarship to college because I was a stronger athlete, … so it never crossed my mind as something I shouldn’t be doing” Heads Slaughter said. “However, I did have friends whose parents said, ‘You don’t want to be doing that because you don’t want to get too bulky,’ and that’s unfortunate.”
As health benefits of strength training become more well-known and the reputation of barbells shifts for women amid the onset of popular CrossFit training, Heads Slaughter said more women are enjoying the sport and getting stronger, including women she coaches in Arlington. The Olympics, and local events like Events DC’s Olympic Day, are also key to inspiration.
“Even though everyone is aware of the Olympics, you still need an entry point where you live,” she said. The event also gave exposure to less-celebrated sports which may earn less air time, she said.
Willie Banks, a track and field Olympian who competed in the 1980, ’84 and ’88 games, offered his own sage advice on the Olympic mentality.
“Not everyone is going to be a world champion or an Olympic athlete,” he said. “What the power of sport is, is learning to be a better citizen, learning how to be graceful in defeat, learn how to handle victory properly, learn how to compete, learn how to be a team member. Those are all important skills for life.”
Amid war, economic downturn, or the Global wheeling-and-dealing that accompanies changes in power like this election, Banks said the games provide an important counterbalance.
“When people come together and are able to experience different cultures, … it just brings us all closer as a member of this world,” he said. “The more we can do that, the better it is for peace and harmony.”