Saturday, August 09, 2008

my friends in the Olympics

i have 5 friends in this Olympics. as in competing.

2 are swimmers, 1 is a diver, and the other 2 are in track & field. not all are from, or are representing the USA, but originate and represent other countries from around the world.

i won't disclose their names, since i know they're trying to keep their lives as private as possible.

but i wanted to write this for them, both to wish them luck in Beijing and to share with everyone some very special things they've taught me.

being at a NCAA Division I athletic program you can't help but be surrounded by world-class athletes. and if it's a school like USC, which is a powerhouse factory for professional and elite athletes, you can't help but see them on a daily basis. and if you're an athlete yourself--even just a loser amateur who's not even within a stone's throw of being mediocre--you can't help but get to know them on a personal level.

and what you find out is the reality of athletics is very different from what most of the public thinks. most of the public, prejudiced as they are by the images and stories and spectacle of professional sports, perceives athletes as strangely anomalous, tragically self-conflicted figures who are as supremely gifted physically as they are flawed personally. the public tends to think of athletes as physical superhumans afflicted by excesses of vices in ego, arrogance, selfishness, conceit, obsession, insensitivity towards others, a desire to dominate and humiliate people, aggression, and brutality. the prevailing view is that these traits are necessary in the sporting world, and are a part of (and a distinct aid in) honing the attitudes necessary for competition and victory.

which is unfortunate. because these perceptions then seem to be relayed beyond sports to the rest of society.

here's how: as much as the public criticizes these aspects of athletics and athletes as negative, on some level people still admire athletics and hold athletes as paragons of humanity. as a result, whether subconsciously or otherwise, they begin to pick up cues from the sporting world. they see society, and their own lives, as a competitive endeavor, whether at work, or school, or driving on the freeway, or looking for parking, or shopping for groceries or standing in line. they see it all as a competition for victory. and in order to compete, they start to look for models of behavior in such an environment, with those models being what they perceive to be the individuals most successful in that environment: athletes. and in order to win, they then begin to emulate what they perceive to be the typical behavior of athletes...perceptions rife with the prevailing views of excess vices in personality and character.

which is unfortunate. because i think it's wrong. at least based on what i've seen.

i can't begin to tell you the number of recreational playground athletes, weekend warriors, wanna-bes, poseurs, and couch potatoes i've met holding to the most obnoxious modes of behavior acquired from their perceptions and misperceptions of sports and athletics. i've seen adults push each other aside for places in a grocery line, spouting trash-talking nonsense about "winning" and "losing" in life. i've seen healthy young men clip frail old women on the freeway, speeding for a few extra meters in rush hour traffic. i've seen 19-year-old punk-ass college students intimidating, bullying, humiliating, and even assaulting others just to satiate some bizarre need for a sense of personal physical superiority and manhood.

and all of it was driven by beliefs about what constitutes the necessary traits for competition and victory, beliefs taken from popular views of athletics and athletes.

beliefs that are all so wrong. at least based on what i've seen.

i won't deny that some segments of sports fits such negative profiles. but to me, that's those segments of sports that have been contaminated by outside elements like money and celebrity, elements that are the real sources of so much of the vices people see.

you see, in the rest of sports--the part of sports outside of money and celebrity, the original, pure side of sports--things are different. the rest of sports is about dedication to long hours of suffering to achieve higher aims. about discipline to maintain effort and focus to improve the self. about diligence to identify and correct personal flaws and weaknesses. about a desire to become something better.

and these things aren't the kinds of things that allow for ego, arrogance, selfishness, conceit, obsession, insensitivity, domination, humiliation, aggression, or brutality. these things--dedication, discipline, diligence, desire, to improve, to become better--require very different traits, traits like personal humility, honesty about the way things are, awareness of the self and others, cognizance of the transience of the physical, respect for the importance of the mental and spiritual, and perspective on life and living on all its levels and in all its meanings. basically traits that are less about competing, or winning and losing, but rather instead about simply becoming better people and advancing the human condition.

and this is what i've seen in my friends currently at the Olympics.

i've seen them train. i've seen them study. i've seen them live.

i've seen their long, solitary, painful hours of almost unendurable training in the pool, in the gym, on the track, on the trails. i've seen them juggling 2-a-day workouts with full course loads of upper-division classes. i've seen them holding resolutely to their nutrition plans while gazing longingly at everyone else's plates. i've seen them keeping fastidiously to curfews and schedules while everyone else went out late into the night. i've seen them rising early, heading out the door, while everyone else slept in. i've seen them struggling to stay awake, fighting past the limits of their own exhaustion. i've seen them constantly delay immediate self-gratification for the sake of greater long-term goals. i've seen the sacrifices they've made in time, and friends, and family, and self, and through it all maintain compassion and courage and faith and hope and respect and dignity in the humanity of themselves and others...i've seen what it takes to be an Olympic-caliber athlete.

and i've seen that all this resulted in people who are all to aware of their own shortcomings and the need to correct them, as much as they are aware of the shortcomings of the world and the need to correct them. people who understand that it's important to not value a person based on just their outside, but it is just as--if not more--important to value based on what they are inside. people who recognize the transience of life, and the need--and what it takes--to respect it. people who realize that it's not enough--never enough--to be good physically; you have to be good mentally and spiritually.

and these are real athletes. not recreational playground athletes, not weekend warriors, not wanna-bes, not poseurs, not couch potatoes, not adults in the grocery line, not healthy young men driving on the freeway, not 19-year-old punk-ass college students with inferiority complexes about their personal physical superiority and manhood.

real athletes. not the dysfunctional caricatures perverted by money and celebrity and publicized and worshiped by so much of society.

real athletes. faithful to the purity of sport as a transformative driver in realizing the greater truths in human life.

real athletes. who've taught me what that term really means.

real athletes. who've taught me about what it means to live and breathe all the things good and noble in the human body, the human mind, and most of all, the human spirit. about what it means to constantly aspire to the greater things in life and just what it takes to get there. about what it means to become better people and to advance the human condition.

real athletes. who've taught me what it means to be a good soul.

and that's why i really admire my friends. not because they're in Beijing, representing their respective countries. not because they're in the Olympics, competing on a world stage. not because they're traveling to different countries and meeting people from other societies and learning about living from other cultures. and certainly not because they're athletes.

but because they're good human beings.

and because they make me as an endurance athlete want to be one too.

citius, altius, body, mind, and spirit.

good luck, guys. you're my heroes.

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