On the face of it, the Olympic Games are about merit. We are told that to achieve elite success in almost any task takes 10,000 hours of practice. That’s three to four hours a day, six days a week, every week for ten years. Combine that hard work with some physical and mental aptitude for a particular sport, and, so the argument goes, you too can achieve the pinnacle of Olympic gold.
As Andrew Coyne pointed out in his column this week, this ideal is an illusion. He dismisses much of what is about to happen in London as a predictable consequence of economics. When economic variables can predict the medal standings, the spectacle is debased to that “of the rich kid in the movies who gets daddy to buy him the trophy.” Coyne muses about an Olympics “equalizing the support available to athletes of comparable ability, no matter which country they represent” as more fair and exciting.
Coyne’s prescription misses the appeal of the games. I don’t watch the games imagining that if I had put in the 10,000 hours, I too could win gold. I don’t really care whether the guy wearing the blue beats the guy wearing the red by 1/100th of a second in a race with obscure rules. I am also turned off by the crassness of the commercialism, and by the silly notions that each of the 302 gold medals available to be won somehow contribute to national superiority.
But I overlook all of that as the staging for what almost every time produces dramatic stories, even important broader conversations. Remember the Vancouver Olympics? Joannie Rochette’se mother suffered a heart attack and died two days before Joannie’s 2010 Olympic figure-skating competition. The tearful expression on her face upon completing her program prompted a deep reflection in my own heart regarding what the loss of a parent means. It wasn’t about the unfairness of death coming at an inconvenient time. It was about the human condition, the reality of unpredictable life. Her bronze medal added to the story, but it would have been just as compelling had there been no medal involved.
Similarly, from freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau’s celebration of gold with his brother who suffers from cerebral palsy, I learned vivid lessons regarding the beauty of sibling love and sacrifice, also in a context of disability. That picture provided a more powerful argument on the dignity of life than any article I could write on the subject.
I am not so naïve to parlay moments of athletic accomplishment into role-model worthiness. Like in any showcase of elites, I’m sure many of the actors in London will betray lives of too-singular focus, of chasing idolatrous dreams. This cage holds stars from arts, politics, and business, too. But while they may not deserve emulation, these athletes can use their fleeting recognition to teach us about the human condition in powerful ways that last long after they have returned to anonymity.
In the next few weeks, a story will emerge in real time, of some person whose name I don’t know today, playing a sport the rules of which I cannot tell you, that will teach me something about what it means to be human. It will be the take-off point for some conversation about the human capacity for good and for evil. The story will be dramatic and capture me. I will likely shed a few tears—both of pain and of joy—as the occasion warrants.
So phooey on attempts to fix the Olympics where we can perfectly balance all of the factors so that a perfect merit-based competition determines what is best. If it were that way, it wouldn’t be real and we would soon lose interest. Utopias are not for us to build.
The appeal of the Olympics, in fact, is in part the extent to which it replicates the reality of life. There is brokenness and unevenness within structures. Sometimes goodness and grace triumph; quite often they lose out. In both the victories and the losses, there are compelling lessons to be learned. At the end of the day, you can try as hard as you possibly can, put in yours 10,000 hours, and see things entirely beyond your control mess things up. But rather than despairing on the limits of our merit, there is hope in life when grace is provided to help us deal with the misery.