I spent the last week riveted to the television screen, mesmerized by every new record-breaking feat of swimming, spiking, spinning, jumping, running, and diving. I marveled at the achievements of athletes at their physical peaks, and it is nothing short of inspirational to watch years of blood, sweat, and tears culminate in an achievement to which only a handful of souls on the planet can relate. A part of me, though, and I’d say a very important part of me, found a quiet kinship with those athletes that didn’t set the records, didn’t win a shiny medal, and maybe didn’t even make a “final.”
Like many, I suffered through the elementary and junior high school rite of passage of the science project. Poster board, colorful topic titles, and “research” findings that may or may not have hewn rigorously to the scientific method. Decades later, the thought conjures a dread deep in my soul. I suffered the double indignity of a lack of creativity cross-bred with a fear of the unknown. To their great credit, my parents did not spend hours on end helping construct the erupting volcano or writing the report with which I was tasked. Rather, I remember sitting in my room, facing a blank poster board, utterly unsure of what to do and feeling completely alone. I knew my subject, but I was helpless when it came to producing a fancy finished product. My projects were never visually impressive, and, to this day, I know my 4th grade “Honorable Mention” ribbon for my Native Americans project came with the secret caveat that my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Dossett, affixed to my poster board several theme-appropriate pictures. That’s right, performance-enhancing pictures. The shame!
My youth is littered with such stories, moments of underwhelming performance. I was kind, caring, and studious, but, beyond a wonderful GPA, I never really shined in competitions. I never cared enough to work too hard, and, more importantly, I was always too scared to take too many chances or to operate too far out of my comfort zone. Excelling in my carefully proscribed, controlled, risk-averse world was enough for me. The heart of a champion, I did not have.
One of my final project topics was, ironically, the Olympics. I can see the white, unadorned poster board now, with large blue letters, and boring text on the history of the games. I regaled the judges with information on the original Greek games, and positively wowed them with the news that, in a few years, the winter and summer Olympics would no longer be held in the same year. In the end, no ribbon would come my way, and my only memory of consolation — true or not — was hearing how a teacher told one of my parents that I knew more about my topic than anyone in the class. Sadly, no award came with that honor either.
So, I marvel at the records and the medals and the victories. It seems positively un-American to do otherwise. And, yet, in my heart, I think of the years of sacrifice that the 8th place swimmer made, the hours and hours of practice undertaken by the 12th place gymnast, and the litany of injuries suffered by the sprinter that just missed making the team. It’s not celebrating losing, but to understand that, when we focus solely on those that take home the gold, we ignore so much achievement. It’s also not an argument for a colorless world full of participation trophies and games without scores. Rather, if we found better ways to communicate the true rewards of competition — confidence, discipline, goal setting, teamwork, perseverance, just to name a few — and emphasized slightly less the final hardware, maybe the gains of games and competitions of all types would be shared by more students, athletes, and scared 12 year olds everywhere. I’d call that a win for everyone.