Words Actually Can Express...

Grammar Girl's suggestions for Olympic athletes who "don't have the words to describe" their feelings in victory and defeat. 

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read

Words Actually Can Express...

Today a friend in publishing asked me to help Olympic athletes “find the words.” After watching interviews with winners and losers all week, she has grown tired of hearing these amazing, accomplished competitors struggle to describe their joy and sorrow, using phrases such as “Words cannot describe how I feel,” and “There are no words to describe it.”  She has a point. Here are some quotations I was able to find by quickly searching Google News:

“Words cannot express how devastated and remorseful I am for making such a big mistake.”   - American Judoka Nick Delpopol after testing positive for THC in a drug test and being subsequently disqualified from competition. 

“Words cannot describe how amazing this experience was.”   - British women’s volleyball player Lynne Beattie  

"I don't have words to express my feelings.”   - Father of Indian shooter Vijay Kumar


There were many more.

Granted, most of these speakers went on to attempt to describe their feelings, but I see what my publishing friend is talking about when she says she’s tired of hearing about the unavailability of words. As someone who works with words every day, she’s insistent that words actually can describe human emotion—even for something as transcendent and epic as Olympic victory (or failure). 

So, to help the athletes who may find themselves put on the spot by the media in the next few days, here are some suggestions of the types of responses they can give and examples of particularly eloquent quotations from other competitors.

Tell a Story

People love to hear stories. They want specifics. “I worked hard,” is vague. Instead, use examples like Zimbabwean swimmer Kristy Coventry did when she said, “I sweated, I suffered, I sacrificed partying, I sacrificed a social life, I sacrificed relationships, I sacrificed weekends and because of this I made it to Athens.”

Aly Raisman, an American gymnast, also nailed it when she said, "I remember when he [coach Mihai Brestyan] said, 'Maybe you'll be down there some day.' And I knew I would be down there. But I didn't know it would be this special."

Be an Inspiration

Hordes of aspiring athletes are hanging on your every word. This is your chance to give them advice. Be an inspiration.

American gymnast, Gabby Douglas, was speaking through the TV screen to the thousands of young, aspiring gymnasts watching when she said, “My message is to never quit, never give up. When you have a little trouble here and there, just keep fighting. In the end, it will pay off."

Focus on Gratitude

Nobody likes a self-centered athlete. It’s always a safe move to thank the people who helped and supported you on your way to the Olympics.

Mo Farah, a runner for Great Britain, made the entire audience feel like they had been part of his team, saying "My legs were getting tired. The crowd gave me a boost … I want to thank every single one of them."

Acknowledge Your Competitors

In loss, be gracious to your competitors. Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee known as “Blade Runner,” made history by competing in the 400 meters race.  When asked who he’ll be rooting for now that he’s a spectator, Pistorius replied with grace and style: “These are the guys I look up to for inspiration and try to chase every year, and I won’t know who to shout for. There’s just so many true gentleman on and off the field of play.”

Use a Metaphor or Simile

Metaphors and similes stoke your audience’s imagination and can make you sound eloquent.

American soccer player Mia Hamm drew a captivating picture in the 2004 Summer Olympics when she said: “I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match.”


Thanks for the inspiration, Olympic athletes. Millions of viewers are in awe of your skills and know you spend your entire lives training for your sport and not for the short interviews that follow. Congratulations on making it to the Games. You make us proud!


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.