NBC is enjoying record viewership for its Olympics coverage, and it's not really surprising.
The Olympics are held in attractive venues, encompass sports that demand speed, require strategy and reward successful risk taking, and feature attractive athletes who have trained for years to compete against the world’s best on its biggest stage. It’s very inspiring.
The Olympics also offer a glimpse of what’s going on in other nations. Hosting the Games is a very competitive process. Winning countries are eager to showcase their achievements to the world, and to stake their particular claim in the global community.
In other words, the Olympics are about far more than athletes swimming in a pool, balancing on a beam or racing around a track. They are merely the athletic symbols of a larger, more complex global competition that has become increasingly competitive with every passing year.
Even still, many, and perhaps most, people are satisfied to just watch the races and the games, and enjoy their imputed thrill of victory and agony of defeat. But doesn’t that miss the larger point being presented right before our eyes? What should we be (re)learning from the Olympics? More importantly, how can what we re-learn be immediately re-applied to reinvigorate the American culture? Here are a few observations:
- Have you noticed that the winning times keep accelerating? Yesterday’s medalists are often this year’s also-rans. Rare are the elite athletes who are able to win in consecutive games. The message is clear –world competition is speeding up and if you are not improving, you are falling behind faster than you realize. This pertains to countries as well as it applies to athletes.
- A good example of this was the defending all-around world champion women’s gymnast who failed to qualify for the Olympic all-around medal round. There were many tears and much disappointment, and even some claims that the process was unfair, but the truth was that she had been outperformed by fellow gymnasts who had improved more than she had. There were no do-overs, second chances, special exceptions, or pardons. Results have real consequences.
- By the way, neither that gymnast, nor any of the thousands of other athletes who did not win a medal in their events, got a trophy for trying hard. The winner gets the gold medal and everyone forgets everybody else. That’s just the way it is in “Realville.”
- And, there is no complaining when the measure of victory and defeat is as little as .01 second. Nobody requested a recount, or claimed that the clock malfunctioned, or demanded that both athletes be named co-winners. The athletes understand this, including our local gymnast who was just plain classy and gracious despite her tie-breaking disappointment. All of this points to the fact that in the real world the margin of victory often comes down to the littlest things – the nitty gritty details that separate the truly exceptional from everyone else. We need to remember that.
- Did you notice that earning a place on the teams was based on performance, not government mandated affirmative action? The best athletes filled the slots and nobody sued because, or protested that, there were not enough Romans or Cartheginians on the swimming, track or basketball teams. There were standards to meet, and they were higher, and faster, and harder than four years ago – not lower or fewer or graded on a special curve - and a competitive process to decide. We need to re-learn and re-apply this ASAP.
- And, when Americans won, didn’t we all look at the faces of these great athletes as they stood on the podium to get caught up in their smiles, and remotely share in their emotions as the National Anthem played? What a uniting moment, and as a nation we only felt proud of them for the success they had earned.
- And even prouder when the athletes spoke of their pride in representing their country, and offered their often emotional thanks to their parents and coaches for their love and commitment, for putting in the time, giving them the support, making the sacrifices, and creating the opportunities for them to succeed. Nobody yet has thanked a Governor or the President.
- Speaking of which, don’t politicians who attempt to profit from an athlete’s success just look silly, out of place and uncomfortably transparent? Experts say that it takes over 10,000 hours of training to become an elite athlete (or concert pianist etc.). How insulting would it to hear a politician gratuitously declare that the athlete did not win their gold medal by him/herself because someone else had paved the road that they drove on to get to practice?
- Unfortunately, even in anything as good as the Olympic Games there are the the users and takers who seem to be increasing. We have sadly come to expect the shifty and the opportunistic, who choose the competitive low road to deprive legitimate athletes of their hard work, and rob them of their dreams. It was not that long ago when we called cheaters what they are – cheaters. Now we call them gamers, as if gaming is not the same as defrauding, and is somehow a gray area of acceptable behavior. What do we make of that? And what of the thought that these behaviors are recurring abuses from the same countries? Would you entrust your debt to them?
I see the Olympics as a metaphor for re-learning. The world community is accelerating in terms of their competitiveness. They are increasingly playing to win. Is America meeting rising to this higher standard, or just our elite athletes? Are we encouraging individual greatness, or settling for government sponsored mediocrity?
It’s time for a gut check. Walt Kelly’s famous possum character, Pogo, was correct when he famously said, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”
What did you see while watching the Olympics?