The most important moral message of the Olympics is found in the spirit of the swimmers in the outside lanes and the runners at the back of the back. They get no glory. But they give it their all.
Almost everyone runs at the back of the pack. There is only one Michael Phelps. The rest of us could quit, cheat or complain – but we don’t. We – the decent majority of weekend warriors and ordinary mortals – discover joy in effort and honor in doing our best.
They say practice makes perfect. But no one is perfect. There is always room for improvement. We are never done practicing. Life is ongoing exertion. The key is to learn to love our labors.
This message is often lost in our focus on medal counts and the achievements of extraordinary Olympians such as Phelps. But the glory of victory is only a small part of the Olympics. The more important message is that the people of the world can play fairly together.
The inventor of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin, imagined a new philosophy called “Olympism” that promoted world peace through international sport. He wanted to create international solidarity through friendly competition.
With roots in Greek myth, Olympism is a philosophy of life that seeks harmony of body, will, mind and world. It demands respect for universal ethical principles. And it celebrates “the joy of effort.”
The Olympic charter states, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Controversies surrounding the Rio Olympics make this seem like a dream. Doping scandals and polluted water are the tip of the iceberg. In addition to athletic greatness, the Olympics disclose social dysfunction, greed, injustice and inequality.
In one symbolic scene, protesters halted the Olympic torch procession. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a path for the torch. The poor and suffering masses want dignity, not gold medals.
Indeed, the daily medal count discloses global inequality. The globe’s athletic powerhouses are also its economic giants. Victory depends upon economic opportunity in addition to talent and tenacity.
The world’s poorest nations have few athletes. They rarely win. Some impoverished athletes abandon their homelands to compete for other nations. Rich countries such as Bahrain and Qatar import athletes from poor African nations.
Another problem is commercialism and greed. Olympic profits are not fairly shared. NBC expects hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue from the Rio Games. The athletes do not get a share in these profits.
The president of the IOC earns more than $250,000 a year. American coaches and sports directors earn even more. The executive director of USA swimming earns $837,000 per year. American swimmers earn a maximum stipend of $42,000. Athletes in less-popular sports and in poorer countries get much less.
Such is the world we live in. It would be nice if sports could solve our problems. But our athletic endeavors reflect the realities of a world that is afflicted by inequality, injustice, conflict and greed.
And yet, the masses continue to run, practice and strive. The vast majority of decent people do not cheat, quit or complain. Instead, we lace up our shoes and get to work. We enter the race, understanding that we have no chance of winning. But we keep on running.
The basic decency and tenacity of the vast majority is the most hopeful aspect of the human spirit. Most of us honor effort and fair play. We find joy in practice. And we strive to do our best.
Olympism imagines sport as a solution to global conflict. This is an inspiring vision. But sport is not a panacea. Athletes are human beings. And sporting events are human creations. They reflect who we are.
The problems exposed in Rio indicate that there is much work to be done in the world to eliminate injustice, inequality and other social problems. There is always work to be done.
Life is ongoing practice, sweat and tears. We don’t work because we expect to win. Rather, our efforts define our identities and give us joy, even in defeat.