Swifter, Higher, Stronger

The 2004 Olympics have come to an end. Melissa and I are not complete Olympic junkies, but we watched and followed closely numerous athletic events, as we do every four years. I’m not much of a sports fan, last competed in an athletic contest when I was in junior high (cross-country: I was pretty good at running away from people), and know very little about most of the events we watch. But the intensity and quality of these men and women, and of what they can make their bodies do, is often compelling. It’s captivating to watch Australian Ian Thorpe’s long arms pierce the surface of the water on his way to yet another gold medal, or watch Ladji Doucoure of France power his way through the 110 hurdles, hitting every single one and yet desperately stay in contention until tumbling forward over the last one at the very end. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, indeed.

Melissa particularly enjoys many of the rhythmic or precision events: gymnastics, diving, etc. I fixate on different contests randomly, just depending on who or what catches my eye or interest: an unusual competitor, a possible record-breaker, etc. Pole vault is not one of those events that have usually attracted my attention, but it did this year. One member of our ward, Mark Calvin, came to Jonesboro to train under Earl Bell, a local legend and former world champion pole vaulter, in hopes of making the Olympic team. He didn’t. One of his training partners, Derek Miles, did make the team, ultimately placing seventh in the final competition.

Mark is a soft-spoken guy, and doesn’t come off like your typical muscle-bound athlete. (If there is, in fact, such a thing as a “typical muscle-bound athlete”; my very use of the phrase betrays me as suffering the same prejudice which affects almost all intellectuals and similar nerdy-types: an near unshakable conviction that anyone who chooses to dedicate themselves to their body is inferior to those enlightened few who dedicate themselves to cultivating their minds. (Note: I believe there clearly is a sense in which learning philosophy is superior to pole vaulting, but explaining exactly why that is so is neither easy nor especially clear-cut, and the fact is that most intellectuals and intellectuals-to-be don’t attempt to make any such explanation, either to ourselves or others; mostly, we just sullenly trade cracks about how obviously unjust and screwed-up it is that this world rewards Shaquille O’Neal with millions while those of us tending the heritage of Western civilization toil in obscurity. But I digress.)) The point is, for someone who had trained for more than a decade to compete at the very highest level of his particular field, Mark has always seemed to me surprisingly easy-going and humble. Of course, maybe that’s simply because pole vaulting isn’t exactly the sort of sport likely to appeal to those looking to reap financial rewards or achieve worldwide celebrity. Basically, if you’re going to do what Mark does, you’ve got to really love running down a track, thrusting a flimsy pole into the ground, and then pushing and straining one’s body upwards and over, 17 or 18 or 19 ft. in the air. Which Mark most certainly did.

I saw Mark at church the day after he returned from an open competition in Indiana, his last shot at earning himself a chance to be picked to travel to Athens. He didn’t make it, his jumps falling a couple of inches short. It was fast and testimony meeting that day, and he stood up, and quietly talked for a while about his long night drive back from Indiana, and how he wondered what he was going to do next. “I wondered what was really important to me,” he said, “because I realized that everything that I’d been telling people for years I was aiming for had just fallen apart.” As I watched him speak quietly into the microphone, I thought how little difference there was between an athlete and a scholar, a factory worker or a lawyer, any and all of whom have dreams that they work long and hard and desperately for which, in the end, may easily slip through their fingers. Mark’s wife Katie stood up later in the meeting, and bore one of those testimonies which intellectuals of a certain bent (read: me) find so often sickly sweet: about how good a man her husband was, how proud she was of him, how grateful she was to be part of his dream. Knowing him, and knowing them, made it sound gracious and loving, in the best way, to me.

I used to wonder what kind of social life resurrected or heavenly beings enjoy; specifically, whether they play any games. I can quite clearly remember deciding, at some point during my arrogant nerdy years, that while some athletic contests–because of the way they magnified and gloried in the human form–were celestial material, most others–like football, obviously–were crude and would in the end disappear. I hardly ever wonder about those things now, and when I do, I suspect that most all our works, athletic or scholarly or otherwise, will be found wanting and will perish (and we won’t give them a second thought) come judgment day. In which case, why not try to push your body into something which can move swiftly, leap high, and swim strong, if that happens to be your gift? Who is to say the “knowledge” which Mark’s body has given him–a knowledge of both failure and success, hope and disappointment–won’t to be of equal help and worth to him in the resurrection as my own?

Well, I’ll stick with philosophy anyway. But Mark and Katie are planning on sticking around and sticking with what they know too; the Olympics may be a lost cause, but Mark has a decent job (he works for a janitorial contracting company), and they like Jonesboro, and he loves to pole vault, and so who knows? Maybe he’ll get his height back if he did a few things different. There’s always the American championships next year. The media people always try to make you believe in various “Olympic dramas,” but I’ve always just treated it as pure spectacle myself. That’ll probably be how I treat Bejing 2008 too–though maybe, thanks to Mark, next time around I’ll see just a little bit more.

14 comments for “Swifter, Higher, Stronger

  1. These are some nice thoughts, Russell.

    I think the problem with athletic contests like the Olympics isn’t that people spend great amounts of time training, but the prideful decision to judge one’s success by comparing oneself against others. The reasons it’s worthwhile to learn to pole vault, it seems to me, have nothing to do with the pole vaulting abilities of others.

    Is there a principle that legitimates your friend’s disappointment that other people are better pole vaulters than he is? Or that justifies his dream to be a better pole vaulter than someone else?

  2. Matt–

    “Athletic contests like the Olympics” doesn’t make much sense. The Olympics aren’t an athletic contest — they are a gathering of athletes who compete in a series of contests that are largely unrelated to each other.

    Certain Olympic events — evidently the ones you are thinking of — do have fairly objective criteria by which one can measure one’s performance independently of others. However, there are plenty of competitions where the athlete can only perform in the presence of another, and that performance can only be judged in relation to that other. All of the fighting and martial arts (boxing, judo, tae-kwon-do, fencing, wrestling), the raquet sports (tennis, badminton, table tennis), and the team sports (volleyball, basketball, beach volleyball, basketball, handball, water polo, baseball, softball, soccer) require an opponent to play.

    Even the “individual” events play out much differently in the presence of competition. There’s plenty of race planning and strategy involved in most of the track and field and swimming events. Athletes doesn’t simply go out and “run thei own race.” They respond to the rest of the field. Good racers plan around their competition. I’m not a pole vaulter, but I’m pretty sure that pole vaulters have different strategies depending on the competition. Given that you only have so much energy, you want to conserve that energy for times when it counts — you don’t want to waste time on jumps at lower heights if you are reasonable assured of making a higher jump. Whether you choose to risk making a jump at greater heights at a particular point in a competition will be a decision based in part on how you stand in relation to the rest of the field.

    Perhaps you are criticizing American sports media culture, which values gold above all else, in which case I have misread you. Chiding athletes for seeking to prove themselves in competition against others, however, seems to me to be unwarranted.

  3. Russell wrote I thought how little difference there was between an athlete and a scholar, a factory worker or a lawyer, any and all of whom have dreams that they work long and hard and desperately for which, in the end, may easily slip through their fingers.

    If anything scares me about life, that is it. There simply are no guarantees in life for people with one or two proverbial talents whose mediocrity is biologically built into the fleshy matter of their brains (or bodies). I have thought a lot about this and my conclusions are far too negative to share here. Suffice it to say that I have an unrighteous envy for those of you with five talents who are already (and unstoppably) turning them into ten even as we speak.

    As to whether heavenly beings take part in games, if you subscribe to the view of the ancient Greeks, then yes they do. In fact that is the main thing that they do while languishing in Elysium with the warm wind blowing in off of the sea.

    But in the LDS view, I don’t know if competition of the sort necessary for such physical games, at least, will exist. (And I have long thought that the “thow-down,” prideful mentality of such pursuits to be antithetical to the nature of a celestial life.) Also, if all of our physical bodies will be restored to their perfect frame, what does that imply for such competition?

  4. Bryce I,

    I believe that measuring one’s success by comparing oneself to others is wrong. I enjoy playing and watching competitive sports, and I’m not complaining about sports that require an opponent. I’m questioning the desire to be better than others. Russell defended Mark’s pole vault training based on objective measures (developing the body, learning discipline) but Mark apparently judged his performance by subjective measures (whether he was one of the top finishers at the Olympic trials). I’m sure he achieved the benefits Russell mentions.

    If an athlete is disappointed when they don’t perform well, that’s legitimate. It’s not legitimate to be disappointed that someone else performs better. That, it seems, is self-centered pride.

    This idea is conveyed most elegantly in C.S. Lewis’s wonderful essay, The Great Sin.

  5. “Mark apparently judged viewed his performance by subjective measures (whether he was one of the top finishers at the Olympic trials).”

    I wouldn’t be too sure about this Matt. Sure, making it to the Olympics was his goal, and as his fellow pole vaulters were obstacles in the way of his goal, there may well have been a sense in which his personal assessment was all tied up in how well he outperformed others, not simply how well he performed. But then again, maybe not. For all I know, in his heart of hearts, he really did think about his pole vaulting in terms of how high he jumped, and his disappointment, perhaps, was a function of his realization that he wasn’t as good a jumper as he thought he could be, or wanted himself to be. I like Mark, and would like to think that his commitment to his sport was about realizing something objective about his own body, rather than achieving something subjective relative to others. But either way, it’s not something I’m in a position to know or judge.

  6. I’m sure I would like Mark, too, and will join you in assuming the best about him. So let’s speak of Olympic athletes generally, or anyone else that competes for a zero-sum prize. Is there a legitimate reason for someone to aspire to be the best athlete, or to be disappointed when they’re not?

  7. Yes, much of athletic competition is based on outperforming others, and much of the acomplishment, or dissapointment comes from success or failure in doing so. Carried out to it’s extreme this can be a negative thing.

    Although the competition is more out in the open, I don’t really see how this is any different from competition within the academic realm- working towards tenure, seeking to be chair of a department, to be published, etc. These things are common goals within academea, and all of them entail an ellement of competition in which succes comes partially at the expense of the failure of others. Gaining success in academea happens by being able to be the best or among the best in your field or your area of expertise.

    But doesn’t the church encourage us to do so? Whatever field we choose to enter, whatever we do- to be among the top in that field- which of course requires and assumes a comparison to others.

  8. What I hear Matt saying is that a desire to win in a zero-sum game must ultimately be rooted in the sin of pride. While I will grant that this is indeed the case in many cases, I don’t find the pursuit of such prizes to be necessarily incompatible with living a life of humility.

    The test must be what the function of the prize is. If the prize (medal, job, accolade, promotion, whatever) is the end in and of itself by virtue of the status that it accords, then yes, that pursuit may be properly deemed prideful, and I believe that to a certain extent most of us seek after whatever honors we compete for with this intent to some degree.

    Prizes and honors that only one person out of many may win also serve another important function, one of measurement. If I am aiming to improve myself, I may set for myself the goal of being the best at whatever I do, and as a means of demonstrating to myself that I have attained that goal set for myself the task of winning an Olympic gold medal, or an NSF CAREER award, or promotion to senior partner and set to work to improve myself with that goal in mind.

    Granted, not everyone with the same goal as me will be able to achieve it. However, to aspire to anything less would be cheating myself. The question then becomes, how do I handle failure or defeat? If I can say I tried my hardest, and performed to the best of my ability, and still lost, then I should feel no shame in my performance. I might still feel disappointed that I didn’t achieve my goal, and I don’t think such a feeling would be inappropriate, so long as it were within reasonable bounds.

    The alternative seems to be untenable in our fallen world — that all zero-sum games must be avoided. Absent divinely inspired central planning, competition is one of the best things we have going for us as humans.

  9. This discussion reminds me of the immortal words of Frank Arnold, who was the basketball coach at BYU during part of the 70’s and 80’s. He was explaining the superiority of competitive sports over the arts–in basketball, he said, the participant has the advantage of competition, and can thereby discover whether he is any good. In ballet, by contrast it’s “one on nobody.”

    Well, Frank got a lot of other things wrong too. If we think that the competition against some other person is the basis for achievement, we’ll soon be competing “nobody on one.”

    The most important competitor, the most important comparison, whether in athletics or the arts or any other endeavor, is with oneself. There’s precious little joy in winning an athletic contest with a mediocre performance, and the real test is not whether one put more points on the scoreboard but whether one did his very best.

  10. Bryce I,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. First of all, I want to say that I don’t think zero-sum events should be avoided. I’ve played sports, chess tournaments, spelling bees, and even founded a piano competition against the wishes of some piano teachers who resented my introducing the zero-sum element of athletics into youth piano performance.

    What I am doubtful of is the propriety of setting a goal that is zero-sum. I’ve heard lots of Olympic athletes say after winning a gold medal, “This is what we trained so hard for,” or after losing a close event, “I worked so hard, and it was devastating to see it slip away,” and ideas along those lines. They had imagined hearing the roar of the crowd as they come down the stretch, seeing the flag as they stand atop the podium, hearing their national anthem while their face is beamed around the world, and returning as a celebrity and a guest on the Today Show. I had such visions watching the Olympics even when I was a little kid. I would toil in nameless obscurity no more. My guess is that Olympic athletes are motivated more by the dream of being special and in the record books, than they are by the inherent benefits Russell mentioned, like physical fitness.

    It could be that the ends (motivating people to work hard) justify the means (appealing to their desire to be special), but I’m increasingly conflicted about and skeptical of it.

  11. Mark —

    Arnold was right in the sense that competition is much more efficient at uncovering weaknesses/potential areas of improvement than non-judged, non-competitive performances, since competitors stand to gain an advantage by discovering and exploiting weaknesses in their opponents.

    He’s wrong in setting up the comparison between competitive sports and the arts. Competition is possible in the arts as well — ask anyone who has ever had to audition.

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