As London’s 2012 Summer Games come to a close—well done, Brits!—I’m more convinced than ever that the global Olympic movement, if pushed forward and nourished properly, can be our nation’s and this planet’s salvation.
I wrote a two-part essay a half-dozen years ago about our family’s experience with the Olympic movement through our younger son, who was a high-achieving collegiate and elite Decathlete. As I said at the time, it was a transformative journey. It made us believers and turned my head around completely about sport in general, and the true value of competition.
Does our culture need saving, athletically or otherwise? I think so. Having been so thoroughly “monetized” (MBA-speak is so ugly), our “major” sports have become largely corporate and corrupt. The players who dominate are billionaire owners, not athletes. The athlete is more commodity that competitor; even with multimillion dollar contracts, being owned is still slavery Television revenues trump both opportunity and principle. It’s easy to find fault with NBC’s coverage of these Games, especially in my case, since our candidates for “World’s Greatest Athlete” were impossible to find among the wall-to-wall coverage of a game involving sand and four scantily-clad women that was invented to sell beer to 20-something males. Nonetheless, the network exists to turn a profit. That being said, I suppose employing a programming strategy to capture the same demographic that put “American Idol” through the revenue rafters makes sense.
Our insular dominant sports are an oddity to the rest of the world. Excepting baseball (see “television revenues”), they are pointlessly violent, played largely by genetic freaks, and incorporate those uniquely American institutions of argument and appeal. Hell, even in this day of alleged judicial activism, we invest more discretion in our real judges than we do referees and umpires. Finally, true “world” championships are settled internationally, folks.
Supporting Olympic sports proportionately could alter our landscape forever. Here’s how:
- Doers without borders. As I noted in my earlier essays, my son had been halfway around the word a half-dozen times and was friendly with someone on every continent but Antarctica by the time he was 25—and he never made the Summer Games. We had a Slovenian Decathlete at our Thanksgiving table after Junior Worlds in Sydney in 1996, and we met others in collegiate competitions through 2000. He had the opportunity to meet and engage peers under common circumstances—otherwise, without qualification—where he could find out for himself what bound them together, rather than what held them apart. Any venue that affords this chance must be preserved.
- Tradition. Our American sports and games are young, mostly barely a century old, and getting younger as profit-seekers study balance sheets and measure demographics to capture market share. (See Beach Volleyball.) The Decathlon and its individual track and field events connect us to the ancient Greeks, starting with Alexander the Great in 737 B.C., and survived everything but Christian emperors for 11 centuries. Equestrian reminds us that symbiosis between man and beast settled international conflicts for centuries.
- It’s the competition, stupid. We engage in athletic competition to test ourselves, individually and against others, to measure and exceed our own perceived limitations. It’s primeval combat, minus the bloodshed, loss, and dislocation. A secondary but important objective is to know and understand more than when we began—about ourselves, our rivals, and the game itself. Olympic sports elevate those principles by selecting the three best every quadrennium. Our culture swings between “Winner Take All” and “Every Kid Deserves a Trophy.” It goes beyond annoying that our Team USA members must remind network “experts” incessantly that being second- or third-best in the world on a given day is no disgrace. Those of us who’ve cheered and cried with our own who failed to earn a team spot understand that the value is found in the journey, not in the destination. Kinda like life, that way.
- Rules is rules. Standards are agreed upon internationally, by committee, defined, and enforced uniformly. Athletics (“Track and Field” to you, Yank) offers the best example. From start to finish, it begins with the pistol and concludes with the measurement: time; length; height; weight. Beginning; middle; end. “Citius; Altius; Fortius.” Protests and appeals are possible, but rare—and only after the competition is concluded. In the U.S., the three best in our national Trials make the team and only those who meet the qualifying Olympic “A” standard actually go. Period. (100, 200, and 400M sprinters catch a break, due to the relays.) When my kid competed, as a condition of participation he was required to consent to unannounced drug testing, anytime and anywhere. He had to file training plans quarterly, detailing days, times, and locations. Refuse? Two-year suspension. Violation? Guilty until proven innocent. Ask Justin Gatlin, who had to take two years off and skip Beijing to finally win a 100M Bronze in London. If you cheat, they come and get your medals, and likely the ones your relay mates won clean. (See Marion Jones. USADA is still chasing Lance Armstrong; I’m not saying it’s right, necessarily, but, point made.) Rules in our “major” team sports are choked with qualifications and exceptions, competitions are extended almost endlessly through internal challenges and replays, and drug testing remains a collectively-bargained joke. Thus shall it be, as long as money is the highest priority; wealth has its privileges, because it makes them.
- It’s on you. To the old saw used by inferior coaches that “There is no ‘I’ in team,” Michael Jordan once responded, “Yeah—but there is in ‘win.’” The individual is paramount in classic Olympic events. While single performers can score for teams by aggregation, it’s just you out there, virtually naked and clothed only with your own fitness, intellect, and personal strategy. If you’re not at your best, the world knows it instantly. No ulterior motive. No hiding petulantly in the clubhouse, nor Tweeting that it might have been someone else’s fault. This kind of accountability, along with rules that are actually enforced, does wonderful things for self-discipline.
- All sizes fit one. Small? Gymnastics. Master fitness, body control, special awareness,and physics—a lot—and you’re there. High body mass, but freakish coordination and strength? Shot put. Discus. Hammer. Weightlifting. Long limbs, short trunk, and big feet? Swimming. (See Michael Phelps ). Great hand-eye coordination, but sparse in the other physical departments? Shooting. Marginal height (by our standards—under six feet), with good blend of athletic skills, plus the determination of any 10 people? My kid in the Decathlon. Point is, you can find something for any child of practically any description and ability (see Oscar Pistorius and Paralympics) to try where the odds of excelling are in his or her favor. Years ago, I coached grammar-school flag football for a year with Doug Cosbie, who played with distinction at Santa Clara and at tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. With him around, our boys had stars in their eyes; one practice, he calculated that the odds of their following his career path were about 1 in 270,000. His desired point was that they seek and earn their athletic rewards realistically, but I’m not sure they took it that way.
- Gender equity. These Olympics just concluded featured, for the first time, more female than male participants (269 to 261 was the number I saw), and they won more medals–56 percent of the total and 29 Golds to the men’s 17, mostly on the track and in the pool. Thanks, Title IX. (You fathers with daughters know what I’m talking about.) Courageous young women from Afghanistan, Quatar, and Saudi Arabia risked everything, up to and including their lives, to appear and participate. Where better for this to occur than in a climate of mutual respect, peace, and friendship? To me, it’s no surprise that I’ve never read about a male Olympian circulating digital images of his genitalia in an Olympic Village.
- Fit for life. The physical, mental, and psychological compromises our major-sport athletes must agree to make to participate for pay, and that they take into their post-competition lives, are troubling and should give us all pause. By definition, they are asked to make their bodies into machines to carry and do things they’re not designed to do, so normal nutrition and conditioning go out the window. “Playing hurt” is mandatory and at worst rewarded. Ten years ago or so, Joe Montana took a lot of media abuse for showing up in Sacramento to testify and lobby for including NFL linemen in California’s workers compensation program, what with their being “millionaires” and all. In truth, how little the league does for them in their post-play years in scandalous. I can’t think of an Olympic event that doesn’t demand respect for the body as its instrument in preparation. As far as my son and his cohort are concerned, their training regimes, including nutrition and moderation (well, mostly…), became lifetime habits. I haven’t seen any data, but I’m willing to bet that few Olympic aspirants suffer from the same physical, emotional, and psychological debilitation that their counterparts in our more admired sports do.
For these reasons, we need to change our national perspective on sport; competition; winning; losing; and what it means to represent one’s country to the rest of the world. The kids see it clearly, and they treat this unique-in-a-lifetime experience with the enthusiasm and reverence it deserves. (If you watched the gold-medal basketball game, you may have seen what I saw. Faced with physical Spanish foes who threw a foreign box-and-one defense at them, our side lapsed into the kind of team game that reclaimed victory and revived in them, at least for moments, the schoolboy joy they found in their calling–before it became a job.) The neglect our aspiring Olympians suffer the other 47 months, and the distorted overlay the broadcast media impose around and on the Games themselves, are powerful and threaten to become overwhelming. It’s a national conversation we need to have, and now rather than later.
I repeat: I was 12 years old when I watched our Rafer Johnson and Formosa’s (now Taiwan) C. K. Yang, otherwise teammates at U.C.L.A., try to tear each other’s hearts out in the Decathlon at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. Then, exhausted, they collapsed into the other’s arms—Black and Asian intertwined. Seeing my own flesh and blood do the same at the finish line 40 years later, and embracing him myself after his triumphs and failures, completed my appreciation for this model for settling things.