Olympic-Sized Hyperbole

Andrew Bernstein’s recent op-ed entitled “The Olympics Represent the Best of Western Civilization” misses the mark by a touch because it focuses on the wrong athletic competition.

The Olympics as they stand today are not the legacy of the ancient Greeks except in name. They have degenerated into the worst sort of jingoistic, collectivist affair. While there is still some veneration of the individual athlete, it is far more common to hear of the glory attendant with an American gold. Medal counts are trumpeted on the sports pages and in the news. People swell with pride at the Olympic trouncing by American athletes.

This misplaced pride is even more pronounced with people from lesser competitors. I have an Indian co-worker who was cheering one of her countrymen’s silver medal in a shooting event. Was she an avid watcher of marksmanship? No, but this was the first individual metal in her country’s Olympic history. And her sentiment was akin to “Go India!”

But why would she feel pride? Does this athlete’s achievement reflect on her at all? Of course not. It’s just like Jews who feel a sense of accomplishment because Albert Einstein was Jewish. Or Americans who feel ashamed because George W. Bush invaded Iraq. In neither case does the actions of one individual assign moral praise or censure to anyone else.

Is this the way it necessarily has to be? I think so. By virtue of the fact that the label “USA” gets applied to an individual athlete and is carried around in every event, one cannot escape this nationalistic bent. The ancient Greeks probably did not distinguish athletes by the Greek state from which they came. By all accounts, they were revered as individuals.

So how can we say that the games “represent the best of Western civilization” when they clearly embody a collectivist sentiment? The ancient games certainly represented the best of the West but de Coubertin made it a point to introduce nationality back when he organized the first modern Olympics in 1896. With that move, he doomed the role of the individual to secondary importance.

Furthermore, how realistic is it to say that the Olympics are inspiring to watchers? Naturally, achievement is inspiring in and of itself but it is naive to believe that anyone can become an Olympic-level sprinter or gymnast. Determined practice can move a top athlete up to the Olympic-level but your average schlub probably could never hope to break through the genetic glass ceiling to get there. Athletic skill is a prerequisite for the Olympics and there’s only one way to get there: the genetic lottery. To believe otherwise is blind idealism.

I submit that the most inspiring achievement is one that I could have done if I had just applied myself more or worked harder. If an achievement has a genetic component, then it instantly decreases in value for me as a source of inspiration. The stories of Thomas Edison and Bill Gates are personally appealing because I know that I could be a successful inventor or businessman. The story of Michael Johnson or Nadia Comaneci are not because, try as hard as I humanly could, I could not run as fast as him or jump as well as him. My legs are not a sprinter’s legs and my body is too inflexible and tall to perform gymnastics. The genetic predisposition towards athleticism represents an insurmountable hurdle in my case. The differences between these two sets of stories is significant.

There is some inspiration that one can take away from the examples given. The difference between Nadia Comaneci and her Romanian colleagues is that she wanted it more and trained much harder. But the lesson is as simple as those who work harder at something can accomplish more is present in the Edison and Gates examples without the genetic muddying. It’s also a fairly trivial, obvious lesson. The instructions provided by an in-depth study of Edison and Gates’s life, though, is not trivial and definitely not obvious. Therefore, the value of their inspiration is greater both in degree and kind. All inspiration is not created equal.

The true legacy of the ancient Greek Olympics may surprise you. It’s a competition where one’s nationality is only a note of one’s background, where achievement is celebrated, and where individual athletes are revered like gods. And it’s open to anyone who is determined enough to participate.

I’m speaking of the annual summer and winter X Games. If you’re not familiar with the X Games, it is a series of events in the genre of extreme sports. The games are divided according to the tools the athletes use: skateboards, motorcycles, surfboards, and the like in the summer and skis, snowboards, motorcycles, and the like in winter. The events all combine technical prowess with stylistic flair.

It is truly open to all comers. The games’s history is littered with examples of upstart upsets and many of the participants have no sponsors. This year’s motorcycle trick competition called “Big Air” featured a competitor who showed up to the qualifying round unannounced and did a trick that enabled him to go to the X Games. He was completely unknown to the judges, but the only thing that matters in the X Games is pulling off the feat.

That’s the essence of the competition: the performance is everything. After an especially amazing run on the skateboard half-pipe, it is common to see the other athletes swarm around the competitor to congratulate him or her. Great athletes are revered—not for their nationality but for their ability. The bar is continually raised every year: a trick like doing a backflip on your motorcycle might win you gold the first year it’s done, but it becomes the minimum at next year’s competition. This year was the tenth summer X Games and so they showed a lot of historical footage of early games; it was incredible to see how far expectations had progressed in such a short time. It also increased one’s appreciation of the current athlete’s achievements.

It’s also a very commercial endeavor. Athletes are all completely self-funded. They make their money through shows, sponsorships, and endorsements. There is no national training arena—each athlete must devise his own practice settings. That means that the payoff can be very substantial: Tony Hawk, for example, is probably a millionaire several times over after successfully parlaying his X Games successes into a string of video games, commercial endorsements, clothing, and his own skateboard company.

Contrast this with the Olympics stance on corporate sponsorship. All athletes must be amateurs, untainted by the stink of money. “Going pro” means forsaking athletic growth and development and cashing out, essentially. Corporate money goes to the host country and the Olympic Organizing Committee. Or to the national Olympic committee to be disbursed to the training of Olympic-bound athletes at national training centers. Things have changed recently since athletes are now allowed to get post-Olympic endorsement deals that allow them to get some financial rewards for their medal performances, but this is probably largely an American thing since most nations still pour tax dollars into their Olympic programs.

While many of the X Games competitors evince a slacker ethic, that posture belies the incredible hard work that becoming a successful X Games athlete entails. You can’t do the incredible tricks with a skateboard, surfboard, or inline skates that are the hallmark of the X Games without putting in an extraordinary amount of practice. The practice is fraught with peril and injury, as are the games themselves. It is common for the X Games announcers to rattle off a litany of dislocations, fractures, and concussions sustained by an athlete before competition. This is not a morbid exhibition; it’s more of a testam
ent to the tenacity and persistence of the individual. There are safety measures undertaken, but the nature of the events is such that injury is inevitable. A true slacker would never be a successful X Gamer for that reason.

That is the difference between the Olympics and the X Games as a source of inspiration. I could see myself becoming a pro skater or street luger. What’s holding me back? A dearth of dedication and courage. But could that be what’s holding me back in my career? Maybe I need to be more focused at work and take risks (albeit ones without physical injury) instead of just treading water. This lesson is so much more useful to me in my life than to watch the performance of an Olympic swimmer or high jumper, which is not to say that the Olympic performance is not enjoyable to watch.

The X Games is a recent phenomenon, to be sure. After ten years of the games, its long-term potential is uncertain. That it harkens back to an ancient ancestor, though, is certain. I believe that it is not hyperbole to say that the X Games is the modern equivalent of the ancient Greek Olympics and represents the best in Western civilization.

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