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The Olympics prompt an intense obsession with first place. However, the world’s preoccupation with topping the podium at the most prestigious international sporting competition is not in keeping with the Olympic motto: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, not “Fastest, Highest, Strongest”.

Our problematic tendency to honor only the top competitor goes beyond sports. It’s common to venerate the superlative animal by any measure, but unusual to be excited about the next best in these categories. That means we miss the chance to be fascinated by so many species. The “silver medalists” among the animals are extraordinary creatures that should be celebrated.

Everyone knows that the giraffe is the tallest animal, but not as many people know that the African elephant is the next tallest species. They can reach 13 feet in height, but it’s rare to marvel about how tall they are because they take second to 19-feet tall giraffes.

Sure, the blue whale is the longest whale on earth at 110 feet long, but the largest known fin whale’s length of nearly 90 feet is also remarkable, as is its speed. Fin whales are so fast that their nickname is “greyhound of the sea”.

The cassowary is the second largest bird, but all the glory goes to the even bigger ostrich. If danger were the focus instead of size, people would give more respect to the cassowary, which is capable of inflicting serious injury with powerful head-butts and pecking. Its most feared weapon is a 5-inch long razor-sharp claw on the middle toe of each foot, which it can combine with powerful kicks to break bones and cause deep lacerations. These features are scary when used by powerful birds that are 5 feet 6 inches tall, weigh 125 pounds, run at 30 miles per hour and leap 5 feet into the air.

Pronghorn are not quite as fast as the cheetah, so they miss out on all the notoriety, as though going “only” 55 miles per hour instead of 60 makes them unworthy of interest. The Peregrine Falcon can dive at speeds of 200 miles per hour, which shouldn’t deprive us of having our minds blown by Golden Eagles diving at 150 miles per hour. Flying horizontally, the Golden Eagle is faster than the Peregrine Falcon (80 miles per hour versus 68), but both are slower than the Gyrfalcon (90 miles per hour) and the fastest of all, a swift called the White-throated Needletail, which can fly at 105 miles per hour.

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The longest bird wingspan belongs to the Wandering Albatross with up to 12-foot wingspans, while the Great White Pelican is an “also flew” at 11.8 feet. Either one could be mistaken for a small plane.

The father of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, proposed the official Olympic motto, and also championed the unofficial one. That motto expresses an admirable sentiment that applies generally to animals as well as Olympians. "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part."

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and an Adjunct Faculty in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.


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