I’m not a sports fan. I watch one game a year on TV—the Super Bowl. But every two years I’m glued to the TV with my heart in my mouth and my adrenaline pumping, and occasionally tears in my eyes, watching the Olympics.
I’ve thought about why the Olympics are so compelling to us, and I’ve concluded that it is because of the purity of their striving. Simply put, Olympians are not doing it for the money. They may get an endorsement deal if they win gold, but for every winner there are a hundred losers. Those are terrible odds. And a few dozen events that have no career or endorsement possibilities. Some people may say college ball is not about money either, but that is naive, I think. These “students’ drop out of school the second they are offered a chance to go pro. There is little to no chance of going pro from the Olympics. So few do it that you can barely name more than a handful. Competing in the Olympics has nothing to do with any outside gain, any fame or fortune that may or may not come, but is only about performing to the ultimate, for themselves, their team, and maybe their country.
In this world of artifice, pretension, posing, and mercenary or pointless goals, where the super rich must get richer and politicians lie and insult each other to get our support, we have the Olympics. Where we see people with character. Fortitude. True camaraderie. And it moves us. These people are certainly gifted, and we are fascinated by that. But we are moved, touched, stirred, by their courage in not crumbling when things go wrong. And also when they don’t blame their teammate, but support her, comfort her, console her after a devastating stumble or foul or misstep. We see these daring youths with the boldness to fail in front of a billion people, with a camera two inches in front of their face seconds after their crushing defeat. That’s what we admire as much as the winning, that willingness to endure the risk of unparalleled humiliation, where a one millimeter mistake could take your entire team out of medal contention. And beyond that courage, the character to turn and congratulate someone who has taken your years of training and hardship and sacrifice, and dashed your hopes and dreams of victory by one hundredth of second.
That magnitude of failure terrifies the rest of us. In fact, most failure terrifies us, and keeps us from trying anything. Instead, we whine about our tiny defeats. We shrink from any adversity. We complain about our petty difficulties. And then we see someone like Jordyn Wieber go from the horror of not even qualifying for her event, to 48 hours later emerging triumphant and smiling, taking her team to gold achievement. To see someone with that fortitude and that level of commitment astounds us, and hopefully inspires us. We don’t envy them. We pray something that intense never happens to us. Yet look what they become, these brave young souls.
It is also why we become so deeply offended and outraged when someone doesn’t uphold that Olympian standard, and sends out a thoughtless racist tweet, or worse, deliberately loses a match as the Chinese and Koreans did in badminton yesterday. We expect dishonest politicians, greedy oil company executives and soulless bankers. But we don’t want our Olympians to show weakness of character. And some will, as we are all human. But for so many of them to be so inspiring, for us to observe such a concentration of courage, perseverance and genuine camaraderie, to know that is possible, that gives us all hope.
I think deep down there is an Olympian spark in each of us. A desire to find out what we are capable of, and to strive for something simply to draw the absolute best out of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to be athletically. Certainly most of us are not that biologically gifted. But we are all doing something, something that we could do better. We could be better parents, better friends, better employees, better citizens. If we are employers, we could make business choices out of character and integrity rather than pure profit, and endure the consequences if it doesn’t yield vast success and wealth. We could take the time to be patient, compassionate, and considerate instead of rushing to our next self-gratifying moment. We could treat our bodies as the gift that they are, and use our minds to make a better world for everyone, not just ourselves.
For each of us the challenge is to find a way beyond our comfort zone, our perimeter of safety, and work harder to be truly excellent, for its own sake, not for the recognition or the material gain. And to measure ourselves against what we suspect we are capable of, not by what someone else has achieved. We don’t have to be the best. There is bronze and silver for a reason. But we can be excellent. We can live an Olympic ideal of character, camaraderie, and courage. No one is stopping us. In fact, no one can stop you, if that is what you choose to do. And maybe you will inspire one or two other people to do the same.