Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons – Some rights reserved by Department for Culture, Media and Sport

For the last twelve days, I have watched more TV that I usually do in a year. And it happens every two years when – you guessed it – the Olympics are on. I enjoy watching the coverage of sports that I don’t get to see often – gymnastics, swimming, diving, track, beach volleyball. I like the nationalism of the athletes, the mostly good natured competition and the camaraderie.

Then there’s the part that I find somewhat disturbing. That is, when in certain sports, the athletes cry or pout when they win a silver or bronze medal instead of gold. Yes, I know – they have spent their entire lives training for their sport, but in some of the popular olympic sports, like gymnastics where the athletes come in expecting to win gold and they don’t, they’re devastated. Nothing is good enough except that gold medal. Where many are simply thrilled to be able to compete in the Olympics, these athletes cannot accept anything less than being the very best. Well, I think this is the good side and the bad side of competition.

Since humans have been on this Earth, we have been competing – for mates, food, territory, recognition. It’s in our nature. And the modern Olympics is a perfect example of how winning that gold medal can bring all of the above and more to a successful athlete.

Sports is about competition. It’s a metaphor for life. Or at least, we think it is. Sports teach us that when someone wins, another loses. And it reinforces our belief that there isn’t enough to go around. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I competed in middle-distance running events as well as cycling road races. And I mean – I competed. I trained hard and won many awards in both sports. And it brought out the best and sometimes the worst in me.

I would train hard and, especially in foot races, I competed against myself. Shaving off a few seconds in a 10K was something I really enjoyed. And if I had a bad day, I just chalked it up to not being “on.” Cycling, on the other hand, is much more of a team sport and at the level that I raced, was far more competitive. I remember more than once being pushed off the side of the road, run over or yelled at by other riders (especially when the “big girls” came to town – those high-level amateur women who rode full-time), and these incidents were some of the reasons I quit. Still, I find myself competing even now. Maybe it’s in my nature, maybe it’s in everyone’s nature but I share it as a way of laughing at (and with) myself. Just so you know who you’re dealing with…

Last Saturday, Peter and I decided to ride our bikes to the Larimer (Colorado) County Fair. It was a beautiful day and much cooler than it has been for most of the summer, so the 32 mile round trip was really heaven. When we got to the fair, we locked our bikes and walked through the exhibit halls which included buildings with 4H animals – rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, horses, alpacas and everything was being judged. There were blue, red and yellow ribbons everywhere.

In one hall, people had submitted crafts – baked goods, quilts, photography, even vegetables and all of those categories had been judged. As we walked through the vegetable section, Peter said: “Your herbs look better than those with the blue ribbon!”

I looked at him and replied, “Yeah, I should find out where to submit my herbs next year.   I could beat all these people!” As we rode home, I started thinking – “Really, Cathy? You want to compete in growing sage???? It’s not like you have anything to prove – at least in that department. Or like you have much to do with how they turn out except just planting, feeding and watering them.” So I gave up on that idea and told the competitive gremlin to settle down.

Competition sparks us to do our best. And yes, the Olympics is about bringing together the best athletes in the world. It creates national pride and awareness of the excellence that can be achieved with hard work as well as natural talent. But it has become such an iconic goal for many athletes, that not winning the gold somehow negates everything they have done up to that point. And that feels sad, to me.

I often say that we are human beings, not human doings. Competitiveness says that one has to be the best. But viewing our experiences – whether we’re competing on a playing field or anything else – as the energy of doing our best rather than having to be the best is healthier, I think.



©CathyUlrich and LargeSelf, 2012


13 comments on “Competitiveness

  1. russtowne says:

    A good and timely message, my friend. Thank you for sharing it!


  2. And- human beings cooperate, and win that way. Indeed, Eukaryotes are a symbiosis! Cooperation for two billion years.


  3. I guess the “win at all costs” mentality really does make it next to impossible for a lot of people to accept anything less than a first-place finish. I catch myself feeling that way too, and I have to reel myself back in and remember that I still accomplished something regardless, as long as I was doing my best.

    But I did laugh at the idea of you challenging someone to a sage-growing throwdown, Cathy!


  4. You have a very reasonable and sane outlook on the subject of competition, but as that great philosopher Jerry Seinfeld “sagely” (sorry, has to work sage in here) pointed out winning Olympic silver shows the world that you’re “first loser”. I also happened to read in The Old Gray Lady that even though gold medal winners are ecstatic, bronze medal winners feel pretty good, too. They’re just happy to get anything. It’s the first losers that seem to suffer silver medal complex.


    • Cathy Ulrich says:

      Yes, I can see how the silver medal complex could be attributed to being first loser. Jerry’s “sage” observation is probably right-on. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, LA!


  5. Gina's Professions for PEACE says:

    Incredible post Cathy. I too felt concern over those athletes unhappy with anything but the Gold. And your tying it in with your ‘Gremlin’ moment about growing herbs was brilliant. In acknowledging where we are competitive (since it’s not always obvious) we can address and subdue that ‘gremlin’ and not act on it. I have always cheered on the Olympics as a representation of World Peace as we all come together to enjoy sports, but when the ugly side surfaces I do worry. Thank you for this amazing article that touches on everything that has been on my mind. With hugs of love and gratitude, Gina


    • Cathy Ulrich says:

      Thank you, Gina. I amaze myself sometimes at how silly I can be…As I say: “I crack myself up!” And I agree with you, I love the Olympics as a representation of World Peace. The images from London have been incredible and I have decided that I’d love to get to that fair city at some point. One of the students taking my healing course lives in London and she emailed me this week about the energy there. She said that everyone is lighter, happier and the vibration throughout the city is simply wonderful. There’s so much that’s positive about the games and the competition, and it’s helpful to look at both sides. Peter and I were commenting about Eusain Bolt and his achievements. He’s amazing and has every right to be proud of his accomplishments – but we were laughing about it last night – a little humility might be in order at some point as he seems to be “a legend in his own mind” right now! Anyway, it has been a fun two weeks.



  6. FDB says:

    All the Olympians should feel good that they got to be the best at what they do, metal or not! You wrote, “Competition sparks us to do our best.” Which begs the question: Since when do we ever need to have someone else compete against us, in order for us to feel good about ourselves?! I agree with you that doing our best should be farther on our attention scale, than having to be the best… If you think about it, “having the best” is a comparative aspect that promotes lack, where “doing our best” is measured by how we feel and not subject to how others feel. We are all the best (in the inside) simply because we exist! Being the love you want in the world promotes more love, being an example inspires others to be that too! Thank you for sharing your best!


    • Cathy Ulrich says:

      Very well said, FDB. And I so agree about the lack part. Competition seems to nurture a belief that there’s never enough to go around. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. – Cathy


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