Olympic Lessons from Inigo Montoya

Olympic Lessons from Inigo Montoya

[On the word “inconceivable”]

INIGO: Why do you keep using that word? I do not think it means what you think it means.
There is a word that has surfaced more often in the commentary of the London Olympics than I remember in previous years (and unlike the more youthful members of the “Fab Five” women’s gymnastics team, I have clear memories of Olympic ceremonies, and some commentary, going back to Barcelona). That word is catastrophe. Let’s examine that further, shall we?
Ca-tas-tro-phe (n.)
1.               An event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering.
2.              The denouement of a drama, esp. a classical tragedy.
Synonyms include: disaster, calamity, accident, and cataclysm
Why do I define it if it’s a fairly common word? Simple- I don’t think a lot of our commentators understand it.
This team has seen ACTUAL catastrophe.

The circumstances that some of the athletes come from, like those in Sierra Leone, the Sudan or Syria, are indicative of catastrophe. A major injury, as when a female gymnast broke her neck in the months leading up to the Atlanta games, is an absolute catastrophe. A bobble on a pommel horse routine, or two steps over a line on a floor exercise? Well, no. Those things are unfortunate. They are undoubtedly disappointing. And in some cases, they indicate the dissolution of a dream. But that being said…these things are not catastrophic. These athletes are committed to their craft and are showcasing that commitment on the world’s largest stage. And to leave without injury and the opportunity to represent their country are the main goals of such an enterprise at the Olympics. The use of the word catastrophe attributed to a separation of legs on a landing or the slight delay of fingers touching a wall misses the definition of the word, and the point of these games.

A Harvard Business Review article I read earlier today spoke about the loss of identity that Michael Phelps felt in the months following the Beijing Olympics, a loss that he chose to combat by returning to the sport. And we all hear so many stories about the struggle of professional athletes to assimilate to “normal” life following retirement or injury. Does the otherworldly characterization of athletic performances contribute to that? Perhaps. Perhaps (and this is my opinion) we are creating a culture around athletics that makes it difficult for athletes to find value within themselves beyond their achievements. This suggestion has been made in the case of the Penn State investigations, and has been voiced in any society where the importance of perfection in sport seems to outweigh the importance of anything bigger (education, survival, etc.)

For an example of this in the London Games, consider this: in mens’ gymnastics, as soon as the US team fell out of medal contention, NBC’s coverage excluded them. As soon as they lost the opportunity to stand on the podium, their representation of their country was no longer enough. The same happened for John Orozco two days later, after he fell from medal level standing in the individual all-around competition. What message does that send?

I have been an athlete in many different sports and at varying levels of intensity for the vast majority of my life, and I don’t ever wish to dismiss it as trivial. However, I am of the belief that it has its place. Any level of successful pursuit in a sport, one that allows for happiness and is devoid of injury, should be valued. And on this, the largest and most significant stage for sports seen on this earth, no one should ever feel like the smallest show of humanity in a routine (and really, a stumble or a slip is all that is) is on par with abject failure.

So no more verbal beatings, I mean it! (Anybody want a peanut?)

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