Ah, the Olympics. Primed for tales of triumph and perseverance in the face of daunting odds, we arrive at our TV sets every two years (four if you’re prickly about the particular season) and watch the biggest mélange of sporting events in the world unfold on the international stage.
But triumph, humility, and perseverance are not the only qualities on display. While there have been many gracious acceptances of silver medals, and joyous bronzes, there have also been irritable disappointments, unsportsmanlike conduct, and some high profile disqualifications. Even the top athletes, the ones “favored” to reach the medal stand, sometimes appear like less than stellar role models. While Michael Phelps seems to have lived down his dalliance with a bong from a few years ago, his teammate Ryan Lochte has picked up the bad-boy mantle. “Jeah! Jeah! Jeah!” No.
So who to look up to? I propose that gold has little to do with it, and that a little digging will turn up an Olympian of every stripe for every young person looking for examples to guide them. There are some high-profile examples of this—veterans returning for one more shot, like the swimmer Anthony Ervin, who won gold in 2000 in the 50m freestyle, then spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse, a suicide attempt, and trouble with the law before returning to the sport for this Olympics. He placed 5th in the final.
Then there are international stars trying to break in to the higher reaches of their disciplines despite amazing obstacles, like the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who first needed to master the sport on artificial legs and then convince the world he could compete with everyone else. He didn’t make the final in the 400m in London, but his mere presence seems like validation enough for his incredible efforts.
But if we go even deeper we begin to see what the Olympics can really be about, and to find the garden-variety determined athletes who necessarily embody what the Olympic experiment can teach our young people and ourselves. Remember, the vast majority of people with Olympic dreams have no reason to expect a gold medal. The vast majority are trying to make their country’s team so that they can show what they can do, even if everyone around them doubts the validity of their talents. The vast majority compete with others who have gold “in their grasp” because it can be just as valuable, and just as inspiring, for someone to attempt what others think is beyond theirs.
What I like to focus on—at the same time that I cheer for US gold, which seems impossible to avoid—are all the competitors for whom the medal stand is less of an obsession or even a likelihood. The competitors who understand—and help us understand—that the Olympic spirit that is most valuable lives not just in the favorites but also in the most unlikely people and corners of the world.
When he placed well enough in the heats to advance to the semi-final of the 400m, Pistorius told the Globe and Mail that he understood his limitations. “My times are off the top guys in the world,” he said. “I had to run a really hard race to make the semi-final.” But that doesn’t mean he isn’t Olympic material, he continued, quoting from his late mother. “She always told me, ‘A loser isn’t the person who gets involved and comes last, it’s the person who doesn’t get involved in the first place.'”