Cook: Joe Smith's Olympic vision

Cook: Joe Smith's Olympic vision

February 9th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Things in Sochi seem to be going well.

"Visitors to Sochi Olympics will be instantly hacked," proclaimed Yahoo Sports.

What? To death?

Hotels without water. Bombs hidden in toothpaste tubes. The anti-gay propaganda of the Russian government. The massive threat of regional terrorism, and the frightening chance those terrorists have chemical weapons that spilled over from the Syrian conflict.

"It would be safer if we had the Olympics in North Korea," one ex-CIA counterterrorism analyst told Mother Jones magazine. "At least they don't have an active terrorist group blowing things up."

Manhole covers missing in the streets. Austrian athletes receiving kidnap threats. Some journalists found signs in their hotel instructing them not to fish out of the toilets.

(Oh, how we miss you, Hunter S. Thompson).

After all, what could go wrong when you host the event in a country known for human rights abuses and avoidance of all things democratic? Out of 115 countries ranked for their democratic tendencies, Russia came in 95th, according to the 2013 Global Democracy Ranking.

Ninty-fifth. Just behind Uganda. Had it been figure skating, Russia would be Tonya Harding.

Wherever they're held, the Olympics always seem like a supersized Super Bowl, like they've stretched all the spectacle and drama over a two-week period, which also sounds a lot like you, BCS.

These Olympics will surely deliver, yet whatever it is they wind up delivering, the best Olympic story of all comes from China.

It was the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And Joe Smith had a vision.

Smith is a man among men here in Chattanooga; he and son Andy train Olympic boxers (which is how they found themselves in China, managing the U.S. Olympic team) but just as importantly -- perhaps more so -- they train the rugged and fragile hearts and minds of troubled and desperate kids in our city.

Their YCAP program on Central Avenue shelters, supervises, tutors, teaches and trains kids who may not have anyone else. As Joe puts it, "We just love on them." If we're talking about reducing youth violence but not talking about using YCAP, we don't have the whole solution.

Back to Beijing.

It was the night of the opening ceremonies at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, which was like an architectural Mozart. The place is packed, the flash photographs won't stop, somewhere Usain Bolt is posing, and Smith is backstage, about to walk out onto the track, awestruck.

"It was like a science fiction movie," he said.

He jockeys for position close to Kobe Bryant, hoping to walk in with him.

"I knew he'd be on TV," Smith said.

Smith begins the walk around the stadium, waving at all the tens of thousands of people cheering, and pausing near the 50-yard-line to smile at the dignitaries.

"President Bush. Putin. The pope," Smith said.

But then, Smith looks again. He sees somebody he never expected to see.

"My dad," Smith said. "And he's been dead for two years."

Looking up into the Beijing stadium bleachers, Smith began to see the faces of so many long-ago people. His Cub Scout leader. His grandmother, dead from 40 years ago. His third-grade teacher, the one who meant so much.

"Mrs. Posey," he said.

He saw faces of living, breathing Chattanoogans whose bodies were physically present back here in the Scenic City on that 2008 night, but somehow metaphysically, mystically, right there during Smith's stadium walk.

"True story. I saw all of this," he said.

Like all visions, it had a meaning.

"These were people who had an impact on my life," Smith said.

None of us exists alone. Like those interlocking Olympic rings, we are part and parcel of the whole shebang, present here through the presence of other people. Jim Morrison sang how nobody gets out of here alive. Well, the reverse is true: Nobody gets anywhere without other people.

That night, surrounded by the most luxuriously gifted athletes in the world, Smith realized the point of life is not to win, but to love, serve and care for others.

That he would have never made it to Beijing without a stadium full of help.

"Make an impact on somebody's life," he said. "Get involved. Get involved."

This, the gold medal of great price. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, help others in need.

"Crawl up in somebody else's bleachers," he said.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.