Watching the fretting, pouting, smiling, crying, joy and anger gushing out from the Olympic athletes, it is easy to get caught up on the emotions of the Olympic Games in Vancouver. The athletes are all truly amazingly skilled and their performances can be breathtaking. Their stories are inspiring, and it is important to honor their accomplishments for just having made it to the Games. But are they role models? Of this, I am not entirely sure.

For sure, the athletes who make it to the Olympics have truly exemplary discipline. How many people apply themselves with such focus and work as hard as these athletes? I know that many of us, me included, work very hard and devote ourselves to our work for untold hours. But it is very difficult to achieve the singular focus that world class athletes require. For all the days when I come home wishing I’d accomplished more, I admire the role models of world class athletes.

I try to work out every day but I don’t succeed. A good week finds me on the treadmill or my bike or in a pool 5 days out of the week – but not every week is a good week. Some days I just can’t find the time. And the length of my work-outs is certainly not the mark of an athlete: a one hour work-out is satisfying, and two or three hour long bike rides in the nice weather are certainly some of my best athletic accomplishments. But this pales in comparison with the conditioning of an athlete. Their physical fitness is another reason to find inspiration in the Olympians.

Many true accomplishments take courage. Being an Olympian no doubt requires courage in many ways: the strength of will to decline many social invitations and the courage to push oneself beyond ordinary limits of physical ability. It can also involve risk of injuries. Some of the Olympic athletic feats defy imagination for their level of skill and risk. The bravery of the athletes is noteworthy.

The devotion required to become the top in one’s field can be very great. If all of us demonstrated this level of devotion for the causes that animate our passions, we’d have the ability to unleash huge amounts of human potential. The performances of the Olympic athletes can prompt us to explore our passions and renew our commitment to work that we find meaningful.

But the Olympics also have a dark side. It is found in the tears of the losers. Imagine devoting yourself singularly to reaching the top of your sport, setting aside all other opportunities for personal development and unbridled fun, and leaving the competition a “has-been.” The field of talented athletes includes dozens of accomplished men and women who have reached the top of their country’s teams in their sport. When they don’t win an Olympic medal they are treated as nothings. I can only imagine how terrible that must feel for so many of them.

When Lindsey Vonn won the gold medal in skiing, her interview immediately after the event was telling. She was sobbing, with joy, relief, and not a little bit of release from the intense stress. She said that this was everything she has ever worked for—she sacrificed everything in her life for this. She was so grateful that she achieved her goal. I couldn’t help wonder what she would have been feeling if she lost. What disappointment and emptiness.

The commentators on the TV exemplify the dark side of the games. They analyze in excruciating detail every possible mistake of the athletes. Only heroic greatness is cheered. The other performances, in the normal range for Olympic standards, represent incredible personal accomplishments from dedicated athletes. But they are not honored.

Is this the role model we would want for our kids? Would any of us want to experience humiliating defeat for failing to be the absolute best? Is this healthy competition? Most of life, unlike the Olympics, is not a zero sum game.

Perhaps the Olympics present an opportunity for reminding ourselves of healthy expectation management. Focus, hard work, devotion, discipline and courage are all good qualities. But in the real world, in our lives, balance is even more important. And honor should be accorded to everyone who works hard to accomplish hard goals and become something better.

This I write, in honor of all of the athletes, especially those who are going home without medals. They are heroic too.


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