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Olympiad

by Julia Sneden

I’ve just heard an NBC commercial that really disturbs me. The announcer’s voice is low and intense, commanding attention. “In 2004, the US Olympic team won more medals than ever before,” he begins, and goes on to tell us that we are well-positioned to win even more in 2006.

We certainly should be proud of our athletes, but am I wrong in thinking that our pride should be there even if America doesn’t win a single medal? Does it really take a greedy hope of yet more medals to stir up our patriotic interest? Sorry, NBC, but all your ad evokes in this very patriotic woman is a weary shake of my head. It emphasizes everything I find wrong in sports today.

Mind you, I love the Olympics. They represent all that is best in sport. Watching all those young (and some not-so-young) athletes marching into the stadium on the first night can bring tears to my eyes, especially when the US team comes through the gate with Old Glory in the lead. Announcers at that point always speak of the spirit of the Olympics, where the best athletes of many nations can live together in harmony, and where no matter how small the country he or she represents, every athlete has a chance to win.

And when an athlete from one of those tiny countries does win, does that take anything away from the big guys whose countries send mega-delegations? Does it occur to those of us who root for the home team to moan about a dent in the number of possible medals? Is it unpatriotic to admire the achievement of someone who is not one of our own?

Remember Abebe Bikila, that amazing marathoner from Ethiopia, who ran barefoot and broke the world record? In Rome in 1960, he entered the stadium to wild cheering, the entire audience thrilled by his lonely effort. Four years later in Tokyo, he broke his own record and performed the only consecutive marathon win in Olympic history, despite having had an appendectomy just six weeks previous. He was a hero to the whole world. It didn’t matter to us that he wasn’t an American: the things that thrilled us were his determination, his skill, and his incredible courage, all of which are traits admired by the human race regardless of national affiliation.

Sports are about the pursuit of excellence, not about how many medals our country wins. Yes, it’s nice to win. It’s also good to know how to be a gracious loser. On that score, Michelle Kwan comes to mind. This exquisite skater has won National and World championships, but somehow Olympic gold has eluded her. Winning the bronze in 2002 has got to have been small comfort to her, and yet she has managed to hold her head high (as well she should), and give us all an incredible demonstration of how a good sportswoman deals with disappointment.

The kind of advertising that emphasizes America’s strength and medal-winning ability is the direct opposite of good sportsmanship. Big countries with big budgets and large delegations will probably be able to reap a concomitant number of medals without all the hype.

Good winners don’t need to go around beating their chests at the expense of those who may be almost as good. They understand that their hard efforts and long training have paid off, but they also know that just about anything – an off day, a stuffy nose, a lack of sleep, a nick in the ice, an opponent whose skills are slightly better – could have changed things so that they were the ones in second (or even last) place. Winners work hard, but they also know that losing is no disgrace as long as they have performed as well as they can in the moment.

Our justifiable pride in our winners is fine. Flaunting our medals in the face of the world is not. Success is its own reward, and crowing about it is just plain unattractive.

The human drive to compare oneself to others seems to me to be inborn. It helps us to figure out where we fit into this world. We need to reassure ourselves that we belong to something, even as we also long to be recognized and admired for the uniqueness that sets us apart from the throng.

Competition is an adjunct of these longings. Anyone who doubts that the drive to compete is inherent need only look at an early childhood classroom, where children compete for dominance and the teacher’s attention. We’re hard-wired to compete, and learning how to deal with that drive is one of the more difficult tasks on the way to maturity.

Children need to learn how to win gracefully, how to persist despite difficulty, and how to accept defeat without despair. These are learned behaviors: that must be taught. Given the right circumstances and good adult supervision, kids will eventually become what we call “good sports.” Getting there is not easy, but it is a life experience of great importance.

It seems to me that the concept good sportsmanship has suffered a rather severe beating in the last few years. Media coverage that makes stars of many of our overpaid, over-privileged professional athletes hasn’t helped. Celebrity can suddenly demand special treatment. Boastful arrogance is the norm. Whatever happened to a becoming sense of modesty?

The behavior of poor winners can probably be traced to their earliest years, when parents or coaches somehow translated winning into a sense of entitlement. They have not taught winners how to show graceful consideration for the losers. Too often, our athletes have been encouraged to win at all costs, and worse than that, allowed to rub it in.

Which brings us back to NBC. Fellows, your ad needs to be re-done. Mentioning our pride in our athletes in 2004 is fine. But let’s not give the rest of the world more reasons to resent us by crowing about the number of medals. Winners don’t need to point to their successes: the world is going to notice without our help. Step back from the medal count and enjoy the show. It’s a great one.

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