I have been spending far too much time watching the Olympics, every evening and a good part of the day. But how could I not? Sports that I never see any other time, views of life in the emerging China, and the appealing enthusiasm of idealistic young people doing their very best. What’s not to like?
For one, I feel sorry for the athletes. Michael Phelps is only 23, but even he must know this is the high point of his life. What must it be like to realize everything is downhill from such a young age? Of course, we know it is not really downhill. He will probably marry a nice girl, have a loving family, and live a good, productive life in some sort of average job, just like the rest of us. But his adjustment will be difficult.
Gifted athletes have been given special attention for as long as they can remember, starting back when they were babies, praised for being larger, stronger, and more coordinated than the others. The adulation continues into grade school where they are the first to be picked at recess, and into high school where they stand on the stage at assembly while everyone cheers. Later, they are followed by fans and paparasi, and their hometown names a day, or even a street, for them. They hate to give it up, and the sports pages are full of over-the-hill athletes trying for a comeback, to recapture what is obviously over. Remember Mark Spitz?
And that’s just the winners. What about the non-winners? (No one at the Olympics could be called a loser.) How many athletes are there for each winner? Many are happy enough just to do their best with no expectation of winning a medal, but what about the swimmer who misses by a fingertip, or is disqualified for moving a fraction of a second too soon, or a gymnast who makes one unexpected misstep?
Who was that speed skater in the Winter Olympics with thighs as big as my whole body who trained hard every day for four years, then slipped going around the curve? No one is poking a microphone in their faces asking them how they felt when they saw the results. They are left to slink off and lick their own wounds. Won’t they beat up on themselves for the rest of their lives? Won’t they forever say, “Yes, I was in the 2008 Olympics, but…” That’s a high price to pay.
Olympians in interviews always stress how hard their sacrifice has been, even to the point of damaging their own bodies. (Except for the women’s softball team. They seem to have a whole lot of fun, emerged healthy, and would have done it all without the Olympics.) My philosophy is to live in the present and enjoy each moment. Don’t wait for life to become great at some vague time in the future. Retirement, visiting grandchildren, summer at the beach, even recovery from an illness, are things to look forward to, but are no reason to postpone happiness right now, today.
W. C. Fields once said, “Women are like elephants. I like to look at them, but I wouldn’t want to own one.” I like to watch Olympic athletes, but I wouldn’t want to be one.