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Olympic Qualities

Not long ago the Olympic games were a unique emblem of nobility and wholesome ethics. Professional athletes—i.e., those paid to undistractedly practice and participate—were banned. Anyone with gumption had a chance at gold—or so it seemed. In the popular imagination, it was all about the sheer love of sport.

How that’s all changed is too obvious to rant about. Like other sports, the Olympics are now dominated by corporate money; to get their attention, serious participants abandon lifestyle balance from a tender age. The wholesome has become disturbing.

One thing’s the same as ever, though: athletes compete. They want to be the best, and they want it known. As someone who’s particularly uncompetitive, I sort of get that, but am awed by the lengths they go to, as amazed as everyone else by the technological edge that’s become part and parcel of the winning formula. Countries with more sophisticated material science today provide their athletes with superior equipment and a better chance at gold. It’s a long way from naked young Greeks proving their mettle on the slopes of mount Olympus. We shrug. That’s the way it is nowadays.

The way it is, is about winning. True, it always was; but it was also about character and dignity, nobility and poise: words that raise an easy giggle—they’re so old-fashioned; does that mean out of date? While I’m sure those qualities exists in the heart of most olympians, corporate sponsorship and the single-minded demands of winning clearly have no interest in promoting such honest simplicity.

We live in times of material plenty and spiritual paucity. We’re reviled for it by many, attacked by zealots in the name of God. Quite apart from being under fire from people who are even more out of touch with themselves than most capitalists, we’re in danger of losing touch with the qualities that brought our success—those old fashioned values that seem so irrelevant to those who would guide us into today’s culture of entitlement. It saddens me to think that they value those fine athleletes more for the science of winning than the art of competing, and the intuition and heart that go with it.

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One response to “Olympic Qualities”

  1. Charles

    Good thoughts, Stephen.

    My first wife was an Olympic athlete. She competed in Atlanta in 1996 for the U.S.A.

    She was an absolute long shot to make the team. She was competing against athletes with much more privileged backgrounds and much greater advantages, and in most cases, better skills. But she had the biggest heart of anyone I had known.

    Being at the Olympics it became clear to me that there are two things going on there. There is the whole commercial, capitalistic thing, and then there is the competition and the athletes, many if not most of whom are not professionals. It was clear to me that it was the job of television and the media to make it seem like they were both the same thing.

    The athletes had worked much of their lives to be there, and for many, this was their one opportunity to compete at this level and in this arena, and it truly would change their lives, no matter the outcome. Obviously the addition of so many professionals was to increase television ratings and therefore income. But that aspect was just more visible, because that was what the media focused on.

    So I think you are correct. Those old-fashioned qualities still do exist in the heart of most Olympians. That’s just not what we see, because that’s not what sells. But believe me, it’s still there.

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