The Olympic games are important, y’all. They’re an international tradition, they’re good entertainment, they’re an opportunity to learn things about other places, they bring well-deserved attention to athletes who have worked hard for their achievements, and they’re an occasion for us to take pride in our country instead of arguing about politics and worrying about our nation’s future. I’m not trying to say that it’s everyone’s patriotic duty to drop everything and dedicate two weeks of your life every couple of years to watching the Olympics; most of us have lots and lots of other important things going on in our lives. But I think it’s a positive thing when people get excited about the Olympics, and it bothers me when others criticize or make fun of the Olympics.
When the Olympics started last week, I decided that I wanted to write a blog post about how cool the Olympics are. I wasn’t sure when I’d get around to doing it, (this summer has been a really crazy time in my life) and I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say, but it seemed like something worthy of a blog post. I was thinking maybe I’d just ramble about some memories I have of Olympics in the past. I definitely have a lot, since my family always put a lot of emphasis on watching the Olympics. Even though we didn’t watch much of any TV at any other time, when the Olympics were on, our daily schedules were completely dominated by the television coverage of the games. I was used to admiring the athletes’ talent and dedication, appreciating the international and multicultural nature of the games, and enjoying the spirit of friendly, respectful competition between countries. Yes, I am aware that there have been instances of less than perfect sportsmanship in the Olympics, but it’s always seemed to me that those are the exceptions rather than the rule. And I guess I always assumed that more or less everyone held the Olympics in high regard.
The other day, I saw a youtube video that bothered me. (Here’s the link, if you want to see it) I’ve come across videos from this channel before, and normally I find them pretty funny. Most of the ones I’ve seen have satirized cultural trends that I agree are pretty ridiculous. But this video is about the Olympics. I’m not going to address it point by point because a) this blog post could get pretty long if I did, and I want to finish writing it by suppertime, and b) some of his points are probably valid. I think what bothered me about it is that he portrays Olympic athletes as victims. When he talks about gymnastics, he accuses gymnasts’ parents of being abusive by “living through” their high-achieving children and insinuates that elite gymnasts are traumatized by their intense training. And later, when he talks about swimming, he says that the reason Michael Phelps is back in the pool is that he doesn’t know what else to do with his life. He repeatedly makes the implication that the viewing public is taking advantage of our miserable athletes by getting enjoyment out of the successes that they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
I don’t know the exact backstories of every individual athlete, and I can’t read their thoughts or emotions, so I’m not going to try to insist that everyone who’s ever competed in the Olympics has enjoyed the experience and gone on to live happily ever after. In fact, I know it’s true that people who work hard enough to get that good have made a lot of sacrifices in their lives. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so admirable. And I’m sure that it’s tough to be a former Olympic-level athlete who has to shift gears and work towards other goals and focus on academics or a career or family. But throwing around words and phrases like “abusive” and “traumatized” and “inevitable emptiness of the rest of his life” is unnecessarily negative. Most of these athletes work so hard because they love their sport, and I suspect that most of them mean it when they talk about how happy they are to be at the Olympics and when they say that their hard work has been worth it.
Of course, there’s a lot that could be said about personality traits and the psychological nature of perfectionism and competitiveness. I’m not an expert in sports psychology, or even general psychology, but I do know that people who are overly perfectionist often have a tendency to work harder than is healthy, emotionally or physically. Although I’m obviously not an Olympic athlete, I am an extreme perfectionist and I can attest to the fact that it can hold you back in a lot of ways, even if it’s (at least in the short term) pushing you ahead in other ways. And it’s probably true that most Olympic athletes are perfectionists, which is how they got that good in the first place. I definitely acknowledge that there’s a degree of truth in the concept that high-achieving athletes face emotional struggles even beyond the pressure and nerves associated with the actual competition. But I definitely don’t agree with the way that topic is expressed in this video. Because it’s not true that these athletes have dedicated an entire lifetime of hard work into a fleeting moment of glory, only to go home to meaningless lives. I would hazard a guess that the glory lasts for a lot longer than a moment, and that there are other goals to pursue after the Olympics.
So I hope that most of you reading this post have gotten to see at least some coverage of the Olympics. I hope that you’ve enjoyed cheering for your country and your favorite athletes. I hope that you’ve learned something about Brazil and/or some of the other places you’ve heard about. And I hope that instead of pitying the athletes because you think their achievements are pointless, you’ve been impressed or even inspired by their accomplishments.