For the ancient Greeks, winning didn't make you a hero. Being noble also wasn't critical. Heroes were people who stood out for unexpected acts — sometimes even problematic acts.
Historian David Wallechinsky says even today, what’s heroic at the Olympics isn't sheer mettle or technique. It is a story of courage, of unexpected obstacles surmounted and inconceivable challenges met.
Wallechinsky has been watching the Olympics and tracking its heroes for many years, as president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "I believe a hero isn't just winning gold medals, though it doesn't hurt," he says.
One of Wallechinsky's favorite stories of a heroic Olympian is from the 1996 Atlanta Games. A man from Burundi named Dieudonne Kwizera was a runner in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, there was no Olympic Committee in Burundi, so Kwizera took his prize money from running competitions and used it to create an Olympic committee for Burundi.
"By the time it was recognized by the International Olympic Committee, he was no longer a top ranked runner, so he went to the Atlanta Olympics as a coach," says Wallechinsky. "Then one of the leading Burundi runners, Venuste Niyongabo, who was going to run in the 1,500-meter [race], came to Kwizera and said, 'You know what, I think I'll just run in the 5,000 — why don't you take my place in the 1,500?'"
Kwizera wound up running in the Olympics in Niyongabo's place and kissed the track at the finish line. Niyongabo competed in the 5,000-meter race — a race that he had only run twice before — and he wound up winning the gold medal.
What about Nadia Comăneci, the famed Romanian gymnast who was the first female to get a perfect 10 in gymnastics? "To me, you're not a hero just because you're a great athlete," says Wallechinsky.
"You're a hero when you take those qualities that made you a great athlete — that concentration, that striving for perfection — and you then apply it to something else in your life. To me, a hero is the Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss."
Johann Olav Koss is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and, since competing at the games, he has become a social entrepreneur. He is president and CEO of Right To Play International, a global non-profit that helps educate and empower children facing adversity by using sports and games.
Ski-jumper Noriaki Kasai of Japan is in Sochi, competing in his seventh Olympics. Kasai earned a team medal 20 years ago, and now, at 41, he just won an individual silver medal. "And yes,that is persistence," says Wallechinsky. "And also, it is an incredible story of staying at the top of your game for so long."
Wallechinsky has another favorite — Esther Kim, an American Taekwondo athlete who wanted to compete in the 2000 Sydney games. She was best friends with her American rival, Kay Poe, who Wallechinsky says was the better athlete.
Poe got injured and when it came to the trials, she wasn't fully fit to compete, he says. So Kim knew she would beat her easily to represent the US in the Sydney Olympics. "Instead, she forfeited. She gave up her chance to go to the Olympics so her best friend, Kay Poe, would qualify."