The corruption of the Olympics is pretty staggering but it’s not the most interesting story from the games. The real question remains: Why do elite athletes do this to themselves?
I’m not trying to be glib here, either.
Getting into the top percentile of anything — especially sports — is difficult, but not impossible, for almost anybody. You can become one of the greatest in your field or your sport.
But becoming the greatest, even for a snapshot of time? That’s damn near impossible.
So this year at the Olympics, you had 11,000+ athletes going for 306 gold medals. Yet, for almost every one of those athletes, they had to beat incredible odds just to get there. Hundreds of thousands of potential Olympians were left at home. And millions compete in all the sports, and some even number the billions.
The storylines were fascinating to me. In the context of the Olympic games, the term “failure” is something that shouldn’t be uttered about any of the athletes that somehow make it to the games.
Even the term “disappointment,” which was used about many of the athletes who didn’t live up to — in any other situation — expectations of truly unbelievable proportions, seems strange. So instead of placing first in a sport, they placed fifth? Or 12th? Or 23rd? But they still made it to the Olympics. Any of their contemporaries at home would probably give anything to have the chance to compete for the last spot.
I get it the competition factor. If you’re an elite athlete, you want the chance to prove you’re the best. But being the best is also a matter of things outside of an athlete’s span of control. Everything from body type to timing of when you’re in peak physical shape relative to the Olympics is out of even the best athletes hands.
Then you have every sprinter that has had to line up beside Usain Bolt for a race these past three Olympics. Should getting second place against a once-in-a-lifetime force give you any other emotion other than extreme accomplishment? You couldn’t beat Bolt? Join the 7 billion+ people who couldn’t either. And by the way, you beat all of those people, too.
Not too many Olympians will admit to just being happy to be at the Olympics, especially right after the sting of an earlier-than-expected defeat. In the moment of victory, all eyes are upon the greatest — or maybe a 6–12 hours later if you’re watching NBC’s coverage.
But this week and in the years that pass, every person that didn’t medal at the Olympics still probably put the Olympics as a highlight of their life and a pinnacle of all they worked toward accomplishing.
To me, the best thing about the Olympics is celebrating all of those amazing athletes. It’s a reminder that greatness is almost always within reach, whether you want to be a great athlete or just a great dad.
Being the greatest is special and it’s something worth celebrating, too. But I do wonder if we lose something by not acknowledging the feat of simply being there is enough? It seems antithetical to being American, where we take home more gold than anyone. But in this case, I’ll take that.