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Olympians II

Picking up from last week, he earned and we learned:

  • He was elected captain of his university’s men’s team three consecutive seasons, which has happened one other time or not at all there, in a track and field program that predates the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
  • He earned the university-wide prize for athletic leadership, given to one senior male annually since 1937, which made him one of five students who joined a former Secretary of State on stage to address 6,000-plus classmates at their commencement convocation.
  • Understand: Chivalry is alive and well among multi-eventers; they are as close to being Knights of the Round Table as any modern confederation of peers can. In his first USA Nationals the kid dropped two places in the standings to help pull an older training partner through the last event, the 1500 Meters, in sufficient time to capture the last spot on the World team, because it was likely his last shot.
  • By his mid-20s, he had been around the world a half-dozen times, earning himself and his country respect and friends on every trip. We had the chance to eat and drink with other citizens of this world – athletes; coaches; kin; and admirers – and host them in our home.
  • He communed with and introduced us to an athletic tradition that began in Greece more than seven centuries before Christ and endured for 1,100 years before the politics of fear killed it – only to rise again in 1912. It was a pity he didn’t get to compete on Athens’ holy ground, but we knew and had touched many who did. Watching them in the fields of the Temple of the Gods made the Summer Games a spiritual experience for us.
  • In all the competitions we witnessed, he was never anything but complimentary of his fellow competitors and respectful to event officials.

More importantly, I’ve learned some valuable lessons as the parent of an athlete:

  • They seek, they find. It has to be his or her idea. When I go to the driving range to indulge my twisted personal definition of golf, there are invariably a few sets of parents trying to force unwilling offspring into the Tiger Woods mold. A lot of whining is about all anybody gets out of it, and my concentration is poor enough as it is. Mom and Dad: Your job is to love, encourage, and support – period.
  • Aim high. My old man had one rule applicable to going out for a sport: You had to stick it out for the season. Given the state of scholastic athletics today, that’s probably impractical. A Zen principle works better: Wherever you are, be there. Western translation: Soak it in, do your best, and don’t give up on yourself. Save the “lowered expectations” speech as last-resort counsel for utter failure. Before that, suggest an alternative that better fits an honest assessment of their skills. Better for a kid to find out she can’t after trying her best than being told she can’t before even trying.
  • Glory is good; fame and fortune are a trap. There are worse things than being one of the three best in the world that day and standing up for your country in a peaceful, celebratory atmosphere – namely, “major” American sports. Our violent, insular sports are an oddity to most of the rest of the world – made absurd by our regular adjournments for argument and adjudication. Greedy owners and athletes and our fawning media’s cult of celebrity have made them ugly and profane. Our major-sport “heroes’” growing contempt for the Olympics raises questions about their own skills, and their and their owners’ commitment to clean competition is a laughingstock. “World” championships are settled internationally, folks.
  • It’s the competition, stupid. We do this 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. Our aim is to know and understand more than when we began. Subsidize competition however you must, but when the method you choose takes away from what occurs between the lines, you’ve lost your way.

So. Looking for education, meaning, and self-realization to go with drama, strategy, and excitement for your progeny? Turn to sports, like track and field, that demand and reward individual accountability and self-discipline as much as or more than physical ability and training. (I’ll throw in wrestling, gymnastics, figure skating – any sport that demands performance beyond perceived limits, where a mediocre showing can neither be hidden nor rationalized away.) Track and field elevates, tests, and perfects what every kid is born with – the ability to run, jump and throw. Both in its sum and in its parts, it blends sublime physical and mental rigor in the conquest of the mortal enemy within: the fearful, weak, and indecisive self. All the flash, fire, and sinew are right there in front of you. It is scored and judged more objectively than most any other. The coaching is better – real character is built here and you gotta love it, because the pay stinks – and coaches and officials get hugged, not mugged. The fans are truly fans and they will help you become one, as well. (Multi-events being a two-day commitment, it’s more camping than spectating; you make lasting friends.) Plus, the uniforms are cheap; fewer bake sales to buy equipment leave more time to encourage your kids. Finally, ticket prices run from to inexpensive to free; parking is almost never a problem; and the food’s better for you.

Looking for role models? Pick most any multi-eventer – but you expected that, didn’t you? I’ve mentioned Brian Clay; his skills are beyond dispute, but watch him with his wife and baby. As for our other two Athens team members: Tom Pappas went quietly, betrayed by plantar fascitis; he may be quiet but he bleeds integrity. He’ll be back. Paul Tarek is about a half-a-bubble off plumb but you’ll want him with you in battle – particularly if you need to get over anything high. Females to look up to? Most of the heptathletes I know are retired now, but you can’t do better than the Queen Mother herself, Jackie Joyner-Kersey. “Grandma” Gail Devers is a flawless choice, too. Check ‘em out at USA Track & Field.

I was 12 years old when I watched our Rafer Johnson and Formosa’s C. K. Yang, otherwise teammates at U.C.L.A., try to tear each other’s hearts out in the decathlon at the 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.

 

Everyone should try it.

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