It’s Not Just About Winning

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The London Olympics are over and we can be grateful that all has gone well.  There were no major incidents, thank goodness. We have seen amazing feats of beach volleyball, swimming, track and field, and countless other sports, some of which I never knew existed.  One thing is true for all of the participants:  They are the best of the best and they got to the Olympics because of three things.

First of all, an unbelievable natural talent for their sport; second, a nation that supported them, and, finally the most important–years and years of discipline, drive, and desire.  It’s about this last piece that I am most interested.

There were 10,960 participants from 205 countries.  There are 302 events with three medals; that turns out to be 906 winners, be they individuals or teams.  Eighty-five nations won at least one medal and seven for the first time.  That’s more than one-third of the countries. About two-thirds of the nations went home with nothing more than the pride of having represented their country on the world’s largest athletic stage; that’s no small achievement and they are certainly winners in their own right.

Every participant devoted a substantial portion of their young lives to achieving this remarkable goal.  They have earned it, but with the exception of a handful, none will be remembered by most of us.  A very small number will receive endorsements and contracts that will pay for a fraction of the cost it took them to become winners.  That said, nothing should ever diminish the sense of personal triumph of having been an Olympian, medalist or not.

What about those who returned to their native country with nothing more than the memory of having gotten to the London Olympics? To have participated is a tremendous accomplishment and one can hope that each felt they gave it their all; certainly, the years before have trained them to expect nothing less of themselves than that.  The banished badminton teams cannot have even that satisfaction.  We can hope they were a rare exception.

It would be an interesting sociological study in a quarter of a century to interview some those who participated in London, medalists and non-medalists alike.  How had their lives been changed since returning to a more normal life?

I have heard Olympic swimmers comment after their final victory they would never get in a pool again.  Would they feel the mammoth sacrifices they had made in their youth had paid dividends?  Had it robbed them of a different life, of different relationships that might have been more rewarding had they not be so focused on the Olympic gold?

We are hearing more about athletes who, in their later years, find the short time of the highest level of competition extracted a price they had not anticipated.  I hope that’s not true for the Olympians.

One thing is certain:  They will all have the chance to take the drive, discipline, and desire that led them to London and redirect it in another direction.  I wish them all the luck in a future beyond physical competition.

The image of the 2012 Olympics that will remain fixed in my mind is not one of victory but agony.  Morgan Uceny of the United States in the finals of the women’s 1500 meter race will leave a lasting picture.  At the beginning of the final lap, still in contention, she tripped and fell, just as she had done in the finals of the world championship last year.  She knelt on the track, bleeding from the fall, the runners disappearing toward the goal she would not achieve.  And she wept inconsolably.

Rules do not allow anyone to aid a runner, but she was no longer running.  I suspect that millions watching wanted to reach out and comfort her.  She was not a loser although her sense of failure will hurt intensely.  I hope that she will find life beyond that dismal moment to be fulfilling and rewarding.

The real lesson from London is that rare is the person who can achieve what the athletes did but we should take heart that with drive, discipline, and desire each of us can move beyond what we might expect of ourselves.  To do less is to cheat our world and what we might offer to it.

A final thought: If only the nations could get along as well as the Olympians then what a happier planet this would be!

By Hayden Hollingsworth