So let me get this straight: That cheerful gold medalist traded in her family for a despotic coach, ran the gauntlet of a grueling training regimen for a crippling sport, mugged for television cameras and cut carrots with Mom for the up-close-and-personal NBC portrayal of family intimacy — complete with violins — and threaded quirky rules and judges for … what? The elusive moment on the stand? The shining trinket? The chance at the Wheaties box?
Can anyone say: “It’s only a game”?
Forgive my ambivalence. Forgive my heretical thoughts even while I oooo and ahhhh over all the results of the hard-work, determination and dedication: Maybe the Olympic Games — especially summer’s gymnastics and winter’s figure skating — don’t only emblemize the sea-to-shining-sea America of our dreams. Maybe they reveal our dark side as well: relationships are trashed in a mad rush for “the gold.” Mary Lou Retton swings on uneven bars before amoral Wall Street brokers and Dorothy Hamill does a pirouette at AIG. It’s all about fame and glory and glory and fame: focus, concentrate and visualize. Think pedestal … and gold … and gold and pedestal and pedestal and gold…
Yet I vacillate. Those contortions and leaps transform the human body into momentary, living art — and the athletes smile so innocently between doping tests. Besides, how can you argue against the joy of McKayla Marooney, Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber? Line them up with the young figure skaters and the case is closed: Anyone daring to say “yeah but” is the curmudgeon’s love child. They’re kids. Don’t you like kids?
I love ’em, but I can’t ignore the deceptive platitudes, narratives and fables. First, there’s the tweet-ready, sales-meeting cliché parroted by nearly every victorious Olympian: “We can achieve our dreams if we try hard and believe in ourselves.” How wonderful. But what about those tearful Russian gymnasts? Their gutsy resolve only yielded inferior silver. And what about Jordyn Wieber, the world champion caught in a web of bewildering Olympic rules? She couldn’t go for the all-around gold. Grit and guts are great, but they do not guarantee victory. Our dreams might collide with the insecurities of a manipulative boss or an office schmoozer or, in the case of pastors, rumor-mongering parishioners. A politician’s fate hinges on a misquote.
Our very dedication and determination are seen as threats. We’re caught in Wieber’s web.
But, perhaps more important, all this dogged resolve on dream-fulfillment begs the question: Do we dream the right dreams? Hitler dreamed of ruling Germany; Stalin dreamed of dominance; Mao dreamed of cultural revolution. They were dedicated and determined. They persevered against mighty odds and won their victories, which brought cultural and societal cataclysm.
The pedestal … gold … success … grit and determination and resolve and tenacity — suck it up and grin and do it again and again because today’s record will be broken tomorrow and Tuesday’s excellence is Thursday’s mediocrity and Saturday’s failure. Redefine “success” as prestige and mint it into a medal, then market it throughout society and see it bloom. Drive to a Little League game. Listen to the haranguing parents; watch the stern coaches prod their teams; look at the grim, 11-year-old faces.
Excuse me, but I thought sports were supposed to be “fun.”
Apparently not. It’s all about “winning” — and since there can only be one champion, the vast majority collapses from a broken heart. And don’t celebrate too long. Next year’s gauntlet menaces for all the Little Leaguers and Big Leaguers and those far beyond the world of sports. Businesses can’t just make a profit; they must quash the competition and reign as Number One. In Washington, the party that’s lost its mind bare-knuckles with the party that’s lost its vision — and insanity’s apparent candidate shifts his views like a cold-calling salesman plying for customers. Win and only win. Don’t present a coherent program and argue for it; just launch attacks that are obvious plays for votes and nothing more — because it’s all about “me” and a pyrrhic November victory with no mandate to govern. Stand on the pedestal in January, then plow into the exhausting campaign for the next election. There’s no break.
Perhaps we should transform our dreams. Perhaps we should expand our vision beyond ourselves before we speak of dedication and determination. Perhaps we’re multi-tasking 16 hours a day for the wrong thing. Perhaps we’re crippling ourselves and we’ll end up like some 30-year-old former gymnasts who walk with a cane.
But isn’t this rant a little much for Gabby? She’s just doing her routine — and she reads her Bible and charms the audience and smiles her winsome smile. She’s too young to vote and monopolize stocks, let alone stand as a symbol for an unmoored, panic-driven society. How true. But Gabby — and Jordyn and Kyla and McKayla and Aly — are not only likeable athletes worthy of sincere celebration. They’re also unwitting icons of a nation in which relationships are swapped for medals and that transient moment on the pedestal. We do them no dishonor when we see that, nor do we help them by turning a blind eye to the price they paid for their brief triumph. We’re all paying that price. Perhaps it’s too high.