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