Being immersed in the mostly white, mostly privileged slice of the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia), of overinvolved adults and overscheduled kids, I’ve seen plenty of young Katie Ledeckys. I know it’s not just comfort that kills the drive for athletic greatness. It’s options. It’s perspective—the knowledge that deep down, hitting a baseball or swimming fast is hardly the most common route to success. ... On paper Ledecky is like many of the area’s elite, only more so. ... And yet, Ledecky has a relentlessness that even family can have trouble grasping: She swims as if it’s a matter of rent and food. After recording, at 15, the second-fastest time in history to win the 800 in London, she spent the next four years taking full ownership of the event ... She has never lost a major international race.
When International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced the 10 members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in June—after a yearlong global vetting by 17 national Olympic committees and the United Nations Refugee Agency and after countless tryouts in Europe and Africa that resembled nothing so much as the hunt for Willy Wonka's golden tickets—he clearly intended the impact to redound far beyond sports. ... the crisis is so great, and the journeys of some athletes have been so harrowing, that the Refugee Team's march into Maracanã Stadium under the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony, just before Brazil's delegation, figures to be irresistible. ... Their routes to these Games differ, but all the Olympic refugees share the same mission: to change the conversation. They know that refugees have become easy scapegoats in scared societies, easy applause lines for politicians and all too easy to caricature as criminal or unclean. In Rio they hope to present an alternative to all the wire photos of crowded camps and dead bodies washed ashore, relieve the basic human fear of the other. They want to show that they can march in a parade, wave, smile, run and compete—just like everyone else.