Olympic-size Lessons

I love watching the Olympics.  As a former athlete, I can understand and admire the years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice of those who have attained this level of achievement.  The back stories give us a glimpse into the daily lives of these amazing competitors and shed a bit of light, however brief, on what these boys and girls, men and women, have endured, some for a decade or more, to get themselves to this pinnacle of sporting events.  It is awe inspiring, for sure.

I don’t own a television, nor do I have a cable subscription.  I decided, years ago, that the content of so-called news and entertainment offerings was, at best, a bore and a diversion, and at worst, a demeaning display of the blackness of the human soul, so hey, why bother.  Thus, when the Olympics came around, I found myself challenged with exactly how to tune in.  NBC has a hard lock on coverage here in the US and without a cable subscription of some kind, I was out of luck.  I found myself watching the entire eight days of swimming via the BBC.  And in so doing, I came to realize some very interesting things about our culture here in America.

First off, and on a somewhat lighter note, it appears that on the BBC, if there’s nothing to say, it’s ok to be silent.  I cannot tell you how many times, during the coverage of those swimming events, while video continued to show the empty pool and the spectators, the commentators had nothing to say.  In reality, in any swim meet, there is a lot of downtime between events, especially if there are medal ceremonies involved.  At the Olympics, this is even more true.  You would never know this based on American television coverage.  Every moment of coverage is filled with commentary, often non-sensical and, occasionally, tasteless and dramatic.  Or, if the delay is long, the coverage will shift to a completely different venue and sport.  Basically, every moment must be filled with a visual or audio form of entertainment, as if we cannot stand a moment of pause, cannot be satisfied to focus on just one thing at a time, or, heaven forbid, endure some silence.  Is it any wonder we are a nation of attention deficit disorder, foot in mouth, impatient road ragers?  I think not.

Secondly, the USA is a nation of over-achievers.  A BBC commentator said of the American commentators, without malice mind you, that they talk as if the USA has a “right” to every gold medal in every event.  There is no glory in silver and a bronze is surely an afterthought.  Of the mens 1500 meter freestyle final, where an American took the silver, the discussion was squarely focused on the “gold medal drought” rather than on this remarkable achievement.  We often hear the phrase “failed to win the gold medal” rather than “won the silver”.  There is no denying we are a nation of competitors, of grit and determination, of resolve.  But the mentality that we are more so than other nations is a strange one.  Where the Olympics are concerned, and with Olympic swimming specifically, the USA has a long history of excellence and a hefty haul of gold medals.  Does this mean our swimmers work harder, or are more dedicated?  Again, I think not.  We are one of the richest nations in the world, if not the richest, and have been for decades.  We have a collegiate system without compare.  We have well paid coaches.  Swimmers here have ample opportunity to train well past their college days.  What we have provided here in the USA is amazing and envious and something to be incredibly proud of.  But the mentality that these athletes have an obligation to earn gold each and every time they compete at the Olympic games is to ignore one of the most fundamental truisms about sport in general.  Any athlete, equally talented, can defeat any other athlete on any given day.  Such is the folly and the favor of the Olympic spirit.

Great Britain took home 6 medals in swimming, one gold and five silver.  Compared to the USA’s 33 medals, 16 of those gold, we would deem that a disappointing result.  But listening to the BBC coverage, there was immense pride, not just for the medal results, their best since 1908, but in those swimmers that did their best times, and in so doing,  made it into semi-finals and finals.  What I heard a lot of was excitement and support for their swimmers, and, in those times when their athletes fell short of their own best times, empathy for their athletes disappointment, not disappointment in their athletes.  It’s a big difference.  Their focus was on the person, not the outcome.  How brilliant is that.

What I struggle with here at home is the focus, almost exclusively, on the outcome.  I have seen this time and again, not just in sport but in all walks of life.  We want success though we are often unable to define what that means other than in terms of outcomes.  Whether the outcome is a gold medal, acceptance to the best college, climbing atop the corporate and social ladder, having the biggest house on the block and the most expensive car in the driveway, we value outcomes.  It is as if we are defined by outcomes alone, by the labels we can attach to ourselves and others.  It is, in reality, the way we assess one another, the way we mentally file people away in our minds, as successes or failures – the CEO, the Harvard graduate, the gold medalist, the quarterback.  Let’s put aside the potential reality that some of these same “successful” folks might be horrid people.  Let’s instead say that they’re all really nice people, people who help the poor, who volunteer, who have been there for their friends and family through thick and thin, when rich and poor, who support charities with gobs of money or time.  Awesome people really.  That’s great.  Let’s honor them for who they are and what they’ve achieved.  All good.  But here’s the thing.  For every one of them, there are thousands just like them in every way except they aren’t CEO’s or Harvard grads or gold medalists or quarterbacks.  Every day people, like you and me, who strive every day to “do the right thing”, to be kind, to be generous, to be thoughtful, respectful and loving.  There are no medals for this, no mantels, no labels for these unsung heroes carrying the torch of humanity against a rising tide of inhumanity.  But what we value as a culture, almost exclusively, and thus inherently teach our children to value, are outcomes, as if this often short lived moment in the sun is far more important than how one lives their life each and every day.

I don’t know how to change these things.  I just know I don’t like it and I know it’s not how I want to live.  It’s not how I want my daughter to live.  I am far more interested in whether or not she is happy, in knowing she is kind and generous in spirit, than I am in where she’s going to go for college or what she will do for a living.  I want to be able to say of her, she’s the nicest person I’ve ever met.  When I think of those friends closest to me, of my family, I think in terms of who they are, not of what they have accomplished.  I value what they mean to me, the love and friendship and experiences we have shared.  What might our culture look like if we all placed such values on those who would be our heroes, our leaders, our success stories?  I’m not suggesting we turn our back on accomplishments, but I am suggesting we put those into perspective, that they take a back seat to who they are as individuals in their communities, in their families and in life.  Let’s  cheer on the every day heroes in our lives and foster a kinder generation, one rooted in the best of what we humans have to offer to one another.  Rather than wish for everything our children could ever want, let’s wish for enough; enough to be happy, enough to be productive, enough to be the best human they can be.

It’s phenomenal to be golden.  But it’s also phenomenal to be the best you can be.  It’s more than enough.  And we should, as a culture, admire the journey, recognize the hard work and acknowledge the tenacity it takes to be good at being good.   Winning, coming out on top, being the best of the best; all incredibly nice icing on top of the cake of life, but it’s not the point, nor should it be.  So the next time you hear someone say “failed to win the gold” or “wasn’t accepted to Harvard” or “didn’t make the A team”, have the audacity to say “how amazing to have had the opportunity”.  Because we deserve better, our children deserve better, than to be saddled with outcomes as the only path to self worth.

I’d like to thank the BBC for this life lesson.  I enjoyed the lack of seriousness, the absence of drama, and the frankness of their coverage.  It was great to hear such positive, supportive and gracious commentary about their beloved athletes whether they got a medal or ever made it past their preliminary heats.  I loved that they cheered and admired all the athletes, regardless of citizenship, and their zealous commentary of all accomplishment no matter how large or small we might have thought they were.  Hurrah to that, I say.  I don’t think I’ll ever watch American television coverage of a sporting event ever again.  And after all, who can resist that accent?



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