Stop Whining––Not Everyone Can be Number One

The picture says it all and it’s just another confirmation of how far the Olympics have strayed from the ideals laid down by Pierre de Coubertin, who spearheaded the revival of the modern games in 1896: “The important thing is not to win, but to take part.”  The official goal of the Olympics is “…building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport….” Still another observer noted that the “true Olympic spirit” is “found in the purest sense in those that come last.”

You’d not infer any of this from the above picture. What we see is a group of young American women weeping because they finished second. Granted, it was a tough overtime loss and that sports can be emotionally draining, but Julie Chu was among the few who expressed any gratitude at all for the silver medal hanging from her neck. She hastened to add, “We wanted to win a gold medal. We've been working for that for four years.” Newspapers used descriptors such as “heartbreaking” and “slip-up” to explain the U.S. loss. The photos came on the heels of Ashley Wagner’s rant about the radical subjectivity of ice-skating judges and her pronouncement that had been “gypped.” She finished a mere sixth.

Excuse me if I’ve no tears for someone who has just been crowned the second best hockey team in the world, or the sixth best skater. What? It’s your birthright to be the best? Where’s the praise for Canada, which won and which has proved to be the best for four Olympics in a row? What’s wrong with being number two? Where’s the love for the Russian woman who skated to gold? If, at the end of my career, I were voted the second, or even sixth best history professor of my generation, I’d turn cartwheels. I’d do the same if I were mentioned as among the best––really. Anywhere in the top third and I’ll be delighted.

I don’t want to sound heartless about the hockey team. Everybody wants to win, but my overwhelming reaction is to recoil from the subtexts of nationalism and entitlement. The Olympics have turned me off for several years now, and not just because of the mawkish sentimentalism of television “profiles” of competitors––though most of these would make a rendering plant worker gag. It’s the damned medal counts that get to me. Is the USA winning the Olympics? Did the US hockey team win? Impossible! There aren’t supposed to be any winners and losers among nations, only individuals. And, as de Coubertin said, we’re supposed to celebrate taking part, not winning. Somehow or other the thrill of competition has given way to the joylessness of judgment.

There’s another thing that bugs me about all of this: entitlement. The saying that hard work will be rewarded is one of those proverbs that are simultaneously true and a lie. I see this all the time in teaching. Students flood my office when they receive a “C” on a paper. The ones I cherish are those that don’t assume they’ve been “gypped” and want to know how they can improve; the ones who bug me are the ones who tell me that such a grade is “impossible” given “how hard I worked.” I know my role: support, encourage, instruct. I also know what I wish someone (not me!) would say to the second student: “I believe that you did your best, but your best is a "C." Ditto here. 

I agree with those who say that it’s better to encourage than to discourage, but as a society, we’ve gone way overboard with the self-esteem stuff. The bumper stickers actually say that “Every child is a honored child,” but we’ve come to read “honored” as “honors” and that’s just not right. Maybe the U.S. women lost because the Canadians are better––there’s no shame in that, ladies. You worked really hard, but you're not the best. Take your "A-" and be happy. And to Ashley Wagner I say, “Get over it, girl. This is how the world works. Sometimes you get judged subjectively.” Is it fair? If you want fairness, join a monastery.

Of course, we all know the real subtext: commercialism. Gold yields gold in advanced capitalist economies. No one who finishes sixth gets put on the Wheaties box. That’s a shame. Anyone who is that close to the top of a profession ought to be honored, even if they’ve not won honors. Still, nobody is entitled to win, cash in, or swagger. Go ahead and feel “gypped” if you want to, but don’t waste your time waiting for a Metaphorical Mother to come by with the Kleenex box.Woman up and congratulation the Canadians.

PS--Later today the Canadian men beat the U.S. men by 1-0. Now the U.S. plays for a bronze. But who cares? These guys are all professionals and shouldn't be in the Olympics in the first place. If you doubt my remarks about nationalism, explain to me why there are NHL All-Stars in Olympic uniforms.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Good post Rob. I agree, this makes the women look like spoiled babies. Of course for me the Olympics have been completely ridiculous ever since they allowed professionals to compete. Not to mention the disgusting corporate sponsorship of every damn thing. McDonald's the official restaurant of the world's top athletes? I highly doubt it!