As the Olympics came to a close this past weekend, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness. I could not care less about the sporting events — from swimming to shot put to table tennis, it’s all Greek to me — but I will miss the athletes, those beautiful individuals who represent the ultimate paragons of athleticism, patriotism and ab perfection. I relish their personal stories of triumph, their priceless reactions to scores and the humility they display after smashing world records.
According to Guinness, 38 records were broken in London, ranging from the most consecutive Olympic beach volleyball wins (Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings) to the fastest 200-meter backstroke (Missy Franklin). The numbers don’t lie: Olympians appear to be stronger, faster and more enduring than athletes of games past.
But when will the record breaking halt? How far can discipline take Olympians? Perfection is unattainable by definition, but how close to it can they get? Perhaps when all feats have been outdone and perfection has been achieved, the Earth will combust in a fiery explosion. Don’t fret, though; it’s much more likely that global warming will destroy us before such scientifically questionable musings do.
We have outdone past generations in athletic feats just as we have in technological innovation. We’ve also outdone our ancestors in environmental degradation and therefore are undoing ourselves in the process. As frightening as the inevitable end of the world is, the belief that the greatest measure of success is beating those who came before you is almost as terrifying. There is an obsession with winning, getting as far as one can go in career or monetary assets. We are always seeking more and pushing harder, rarely content with what we already possess, and the Olympian ideal of a medal or nothing perfectly exemplifies this mentality in popular culture.
Athletes are getting better, faster and stronger, but they have a lot more help than the jocks of yesteryear. Performance-enhancing drugs have been officially banned since 1928, and genetic manipulation isn’t yet applicable, unless China knows something we don’t (which would explain how swimmer Ye Shiwen shaved five seconds off of the 400-meter medley world record).
So what explains all of the shattered records? More intensive training regimens and a greater knowledge of nutrition and physics are likely responsible. More than anything, however, is the intensified athletic mentality.
China is notorious for its disciplined, robotic athletes who start training at an early age and continue until they have snagged a medal or, thanks to the huge supply of people, been replaced. The values of extremism and perfectionism play out in Chinese athletes as much as they do in the country’s technological innovation and economic success. Whether you attribute it to Confucianism or communism, the figures still stand: China is one disciplined nation.
Such record breaking plays out in America, too. Apple keeps coming out with faster and smaller computers, college admissions become more competitive every year and temperatures continue to get hotter. We are surrounded by innovation and record breaking, and as much as it is arguably a part of the natural order, there must be a point where it all ends.
Such is the race to nowhere, an endless climb to some elusive and ill-defined destination, where the summit, if ever reached, is full of emptiness. Kids learn this be-the-best-or-nothing mentality in school, the pinnacle of their time in school being acceptance to a top-rated university.
But what about the kids who don’t get into Harvard or Yale, Stanford or UC Berkeley? Society tells them that they have failed, that average just doesn’t cut it. All of these inflated expectations just set many kids up for inevitable failure when judged by such benchmarks. Even the grading system is inflated. A “C” grade is formally quantified as “average,” which is a compliment by societal standards; as Amy Chua wrote in her controversial “Hymn of the Tiger Mom”: “If a Chinese child gets a B — which would never happen — there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” As exaggerated as that sounds, it’s the real deal in many competitive American schools — and not just for Chinese children.
But what does all this have to do with the Olympics? When we worship Olympians, we are not only admiring their physical feats and athletic prowess but also their monklike dedication to the achievement of perfection. Extremism is their dogma, discipline their holy scriptures. As admirable as these qualities are, they endanger the psyche with their undertones of a gold-medal-or-nothing mentality.
Michael Phelps won 19 medals over the span of four Olympic games; he is the definition of pushing the envelope and taking his sport to the extreme. As I have no plans to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics, I plan on bestowing on myself a gold medal in the Olympics of averageness and imperfection.
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