I'm of two minds with regards to the Olympics.
Okay, to be fair, I'm of two minds with regards to most things. More than two minds, sometimes. My friends have been known to quote Tolkien at me - "Go not to the Elves for advice, for they will say both yes and no." I can usually argue both sides of any point, often equally persuasively - and can talk myself into almost anything.
Well, except for the whole evolution thing. I'm pretty rabid about that. Other than that, I'm kind of ambivalent by nature.
But I digress.
This evening will be the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics, when the most talented athletes will meet in London to being a series of grueling competitions for the gold. Most of these young men and women have trained all of their lives for this moment, and a tremendous amount rides on success. You don't get that far without a huge competitive streak -- and the fact that the majority of the participants will not receive a medal is simple mathematics. So, my question: is the heartbreak worth it?
I still remember watching an event in the 2010 Winter Olympics. Some friends and I were in a bar following a Cornell hockey game, and the television was tuned in to the women's hockey game between Canada and Slovakia. Evidently not having had enough opportunities that evening to watch a puck sliding around, I became glued to the set.
When we came in, it was 13-0 in Canada's favor, with 19 minutes to go in the third period. As I watched, the score finally climbed its way up to 18-0.
I couldn't take my eyes off it. Besides loving hockey, it was a little like watching a car crash. You're seeing it, you know it's going to be bad, but you can't take your eyes off it. That poor Slovakian goalie was powerless to do anything about facing an offense that basically steamrolled her own defense, and one shot after another went in to the net. When the teams lined up to shake hands afterwards, she was in tears.
Don't get me wrong; I like watching skill. The Canadians were clearly more talented and better trained, and deserved the win. But the compassionate side of me hates to watch what amounts to an athletic car crash happening, in full view of millions.
This, of course, isn't the only time this sort of thing has happened. I still remember some years ago when French figure skater Laetitia Hubert was catapulted from 20-some-oddth place into 5th by a flawless short program, and had to go into the finals against the Big Dogs of the likes of Surya Bonaly and Midori Ito. The poor kid couldn't take the pressure, and completely fell apart. The tears of amazed joy from the previous day turned into a performance that was acutely painful to watch, as she tried again and again to land jumps that her nerves just wouldn't handle. It is the only time I've ever seen the camera cut to a commercial break in the middle of someone's performance -- even the network techs couldn't bear to have her humiliation televised.
It's an odd thing, the Olympics. We watch it to see the best of the best strut their stuff, to see people do what 99% of us couldn't in a hundred years dream of doing ourselves. When the inevitable happens, and some of them fail, they sometimes do so in such a spectacular fashion that it makes us want to turn away, to pretend it isn't happening, but we know that we will remember these people as much - or perhaps more - than the ones who get the medals.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not against competition per se. And I think that our current self-esteem obsessed educational establishment's emphasis on making sure that everyone wins is wrong-headed; true self esteem comes from challenging yourself, working hard, and succeeding at something you didn't think you'd be able to do. But I do have to wonder if extremely high-stakes competition, from medical schools to American Idol to the Olympics, is more destructive than constructive.
I know that the athletes would say -- most of them, anyway -- that it's the mere fact of making the Olympic team, of getting there, that is the most important, and that the medals are secondary. I only believe that up to a point. If we set up a contest whose sole aim is to raise the fastest, strongest, and most skilled to the skies, then the ones who fall will always draw our sympathy. I honestly don't know if the whole Olympic concept is a good thing or a bad; probably some of both. But for me, the despairing face of Laetitia Hubert, picking herself up off the ice after the sixth bad fall, and the tears on the face of the Slovakian goalie are as much a part of it as is the joy of the gold medalist. If you want the one, you have to accept the other.