I was recently at a friend’s house and met a young rower who was bunking there during a month of trials for the US Junior National Team. He seemed to me, like all rowers, impossibly tall and fit. He was also extremely sick, due to a stomach bug that had kept him from eating for two days. Regardless, he had to keep showing up each morning to earn his spot in the boat, while the team was whittled.
When he made his brief appearance, somebody introduced me and cheerfully pointed out that I was an Olympian. He looked down at me, his face gaunt and exhausted, his expression haggard, but intrigued, and flatly asked a single question:
“Is it worth it?”
I totally appreciated the question, particularly from a rower. Rowing is a supreme test of mental and physical endurance. It is also a sport where there is zero prospect of financial reward, or of popular recognition (unless you happen to strike gold and have a book written about you and your teammates that captures the world’s attention… some 80 years later.) While his sport may be an extreme on the scale of dedication required vs extrinsic reward, this rower’s question is not unique. In every sport, every athlete on the elite path at some point—often at many points—asks himself or herself, “Is it worth it?”
What could I tell this young man, who was so agonizingly driven by his Olympic Dream? The best answer I could offer came from a blog post by Cassidy Lichtman, a member of the US National Volleyball Team. She had just missed the Olympic cut and, though devastated, ultimately realized that “…I’m still me. Being an Olympian would’ve changed my life but it never had the power to change that.” Lichtman goes on to describe why she has no regrets in the pursuit because, “dreaming big dreams, going all in and then falling just short doesn’t make you a failure. The failure lies in holding back and staying small.”
I hope you will read the whole post, because it aptly articulates an important truth, one I think of every time I get introduced as a “two-time Olympian.” I am a proud Olympian, but it is not my identity. What I am, is all the unglamorous stuff that helped get me there and has guided me ever since. Making the Olympics is a huge accomplishment and a life highlight. You don’t get there without hard work, sacrifice and dedication. But it also takes circumstance, opportunity and luck. Anyone who says otherwise is missing another element that even the greatest in sport understand: humility.
Sadly, the Olympics themselves seem in need of a dose of humility. Too many years of the Games being awarded to the highest bidder—who then blithely bankrupts their city in a massive show of one-upmanship— have turned the Olympics from a pure pursuit of excellence into an unchecked arms race, a spectacle that is increasingly uneasy to watch. In his Washington Post article, John Feinstein suggests that the Olympics may have “jumped the shark,” as in strayed irretrievably far from its mission. He blames corporate greed, the effect of which was epitomized in the medal- and ratings-grabbing inclusion of the “Dream Team” in 1992. Indeed, the Kodak moment of Michael Jordan wrapped in the US flag—not in a show of patriotism but in an effort to hide the Reebok logos on his Olympic uniform—is cringeworthy.
In our hearts we all still want the Olympics to be what they were envisioned to be: a global celebration of the world’s very best athletes. I know that’s what my kids want. Friday night, my son followed his natural instinct to do what every kid has done since the age of television—to camp out in front of the TV and watch the Opening Ceremonies. After more than two hours of the Parade of Nations, however, he finally fell asleep, missing every bit of the actual ceremony and the all-important torch lighting. Hello NBC and IOC—your biggest Olympics fan isn’t watching, and it’s not because he’s watching something else. It’s because he can’t find “The Olympics.” All he sees are ads and an overly-wrought script.
He did, however, stay up long enough to develop a slight animosity towards the broadcasters, who promised before every commercial break to “be back with the entrance of the American team,” who repeatedly advised us that the US would march in “under the E’s for Estatos Unitos” (we’ve all watched enough Dora. Comprendo!), and who took weird pride in delivering the most inane minutae. After their entrance, and the subsequent focus on Team USA, I quietly willed the camera away from its persistent focus on clusters of American athletes chanting USA! USA! The Opening Ceremonies are supposed to be about unity among nations, right?
To Rio’s immense credit, they busted out their best gambiarra (MacGyverism) to pull off an Opening Ceremonies for half of what London spent ($42 million), a fraction of Beijing’s $100 million plus extravaganza and God only knows how much less than what went down in Sochi, in the $600 million stadium Putin built. Maybe, just maybe, Rio will send a more powerful message than its predecessors, a message that may hold the key to survival of this tradition we hold dear. This one event is still the ultimate competition, still fuels the dreams of the greatest athletes in the world and all those they inspire. But it too can fail, or simply fade into irrelevance. It has gotten too big for itself, and runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight. But it is well worth saving.
The truth is that the Olympics are nothing if they are not about the athletes, current and future. Whether these dreamers know it or not, a gold medal won’t change their lives, but the pursuit of it will. That pursuit is what makes the Olympics matter, and neither the athlete marching in to deafening cheers and dazzling lights nor the kid watching from his living room nest cares much about big budget stages and special effects. They care about seeing the absolute best athletes from every corner of the globe come together to vie for the honor of being the world’s greatest at one thing on one day.
Is that worth it? For the disheveled rower mustering his strength to fight the next morning, and for the kid staying up late to feed the fire in his belly with Olympic fantasies, it most certainly still is.