What drives an elite young athlete? Having watched a fair amount of this summer’s Olympics and also having had the good fortune to speak with several teenagers who are just experiencing their first taste of international, high-level competition, it’s fascinating to imagine what pushes them to ever-increasing levels of excellence.
Is it the need to prove you’re the best at something, beating all challengers until there’s simply no one else to beat? Is it some desire to push yourself and your body to its extreme limits? Do you have dreams of hope and glory? Or, is there a family member passing on their own aspirations and living their own missed opportunities vicariously through you?
Perhaps, it’s a little of all of those reasons – or none of them at all. In any case, there’s definitely something that separates all these elite athletes from other people. There’s a drive somewhere within them that most of us just don’t seem to have. It pushes and prods them every single waking moment of the day – and probably when they’re sleeping, as well. We’ve all heard of business people or artists or religious zealots who seem consumed by their passions, but it’s hard to compare their obsessions with what these athletes endure, often setting aside virtually everything else in their lives to become the best they can be.
Is this healthy? It seems an ironic question when you’re talking about some of the most muscle-bound, body fat-deprived specimens of the human race you’ll ever see. But, there’s more to health sometimes than just gleaming abs and rippling biceps. What about the mental aspect that accompanies these athletes’ single-minded pursuit of victory?
Sometimes their total dedication to a single goal almost seems disturbing. Witness an athlete who believes he’s let his entire country down when he steps on a line during a race and, inadvertently, causes his team to miss out on a medal. Did he just participate in a killing spree in a mall or develop a poison gas that could wipe out the whole planet? No, he made a mistake that could happen to anyone and our country took home one fewer medal.
What about a team that lost a close match to a competitor and, rather than saying how well both teams played and how proud they should be of their performance, says (in the heat of the moment, I’ll agree) that the reason they lost was because of poor calls by officials, not because the other team was better. Is this what we want our children to learn, to blame others when we don’t win and undermine those who do?
I apologize for nit-picking a few random examples from hundreds of inspiring Olympic events. For the most part, I enjoyed much of the games and was happy to see the support given to both winners and runners-up. The sight of competitors from various countries embracing and supporting others in their events certainly made the games, for the most part, an overwhelmingly positive experience.
In the back of my mind, however, there will always be a question about what motivates these athletes and whether, in the long run, it’s going to lead them to be better citizens when their Olympic careers are done. If everything’s kept in perspective and everyone remember that these are, after all, just “games,” I think it will. It’s when it becomes the sole expression of someone’s life that it sometimes causes me to worry.