Friday, August 3, 2012


3. of, resembling, characteristic of, or suitable to the gods of Olympus; majestic or aloof
5. a contender in the Olympic Games

We've been watching a lot of the Olympics around here.  We've watched everything from swim medleys to beach volleyball to gymnastics.  We've watched new-to-us sports like fencing (not enthralled with that one) and archery (more interesting than I would have thought).  We've grabbed our book on the world's flags to see which country a runner is from (Malta, in case you were wondering).

Generally, I've been recording the prime time Olympic coverage on NBC and watching it the next day with my daughters.  This has the advantage of being able to fast forward through commercials and the disadvantage of often being nearly 24 hours behind in knowing results.  Because we've been able to skip through to the coverage that interests us most, I've skipped many of the athlete biographies.

Yet I've still heard the stories about the rigorous training, the financial hardships on the families, the athletes who chose to leave home for a coach who could help them achieve their dreams.  These stories are meant to be inspiring with their emotion-inducing music and misty-eyed parental shots.  And while they do touch me, they've also left me with questions.

Is a gold medal worth a childhood?

Is the time and effort that it costs not just the athlete, but their family, worth it?

What is the rest of your life like when you achieve your dream at age 16?

Could I parent my child through something like this?

I have an abiding thankfulness that none of my children are graced with Olympic caliber athleticism.  Because I think it's beyond challenging to help your child maintain a sense of who they are as a person while also shooting for the Olympics.  Are you a swimmer first, student second?  How much do you let your physical gifts define you?

By far the most encouraging athlete bio I've seen was of young swimmer Missy Franklin.  There was a lot of content, but what struck me most was when Missy told the story of other swimmers who said to her, "You know, Colorado isn't a big swimming state.  Shouldn't you move to Florida or California?"  Her response?  "I don't think I could do what I do if I left home, if I didn't have my family and friends around me."  Her family clearly supports this line of thinking.  Not only does Missy still live in Fort Collins, Colorado, she has turned down endorsement deals in order to swim on her high school swim team.  So it is possible to be an Olympian and still act your age.  It's just not easy.

I think one reason it's so difficult is because the Olympics have transformed over the years from a sporting event that transcends geopolitical boundaries to an entertainment spectacle.  Combine this with the tendency our country has to elevate sport to religion and I wonder whether the result is toxic.  Are we celebrating these athletes as people or demi-gods?  What happens when they step down from Mt. Olympus (or London) and land in Kansas City, San Jose or Peoria?

In preparation for the Olympics, my daughters, my mom and I watched Chariots of Fire.  There were many interesting things in the film, but one thing that stood out was how ordinary the athletes were.  They had relationships.  They were students.  They ran for their own reasons (for God, for respect), but running was just one part of their life.  It seems to me as spectator that such a balance is nearly impossible to attain as an Olympian today.

So as I watch these games, I'll try to keep it all in perspective.  They are just games.  Spectacular games, yes.  But just games.  And in the end, maybe I'd rather be ordinary than Olympic.

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