The wonderful ickiness of watching the Olympics


I’m addicted to watching the Olympics. Every two years I tell myself that I won’t do it again, that I won’t spend the next ten days parked in front of a TV watching the Olympics. And yet here I am. Cheering on swimmers and gymnasts and beach volleyball teams. Yesterday, I got sucked into a 45-minute fencing match and the blades were so thin that it was impossible to tell who scored. But it didn’t matter. I watched anyway.

There’s something exhilarating about watching elite American athletes compete on an international stage. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s patriotic. It’s addictive.

So why does watching the Olympics make me feel icky inside?

The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat

We love a good story. It’s human nature. And Olympic coverage is a story-telling machine.

Whether it’s the juggernaut of U.S. women’s gymnastics or Michael Phelps staring down the competition in the ready room, the Olympics deliver super-sized helpings of drama to our living rooms every single night.

As we watch these stories unfold in real time, we can’t help but feel like we’re a part of the narrative, especially when the narrative involves American athletes.

By the time the Olympics are over, we’re on a first-name basis with our favorite athletes. People like Simone and Michael aren’t strangers anymore. They’re our neighbors and friends.

The stories we don’t see when we watch the Olympics

Earlier this week, Gersh Kuntzman published a column in the New York Daily News about how the Olympics are the original freak show. According to Kuntzman:

“… Olympic champions are yet another reminder that if you want to be the best at anything, be prepared to focus on a single thing from age 5 at the expense of pretty much everything else.”

It’s a valid point. Behind every feel-good story at the Olympic games, there are countless tragedies playing out behind the scenes. Not tragedies like finishing fourth or suffering a career-ending injury before millions of spectators. But the kind of tragedies that happen when people devote their entire lives to a sport that ultimately abandons them when they get too slow, too weak, too old.

Some child athletes never recover from leaving their families during their formative years to live with strangers and train full-time for their sports. Others turn to drugs, alcohol and other vices when their sports careers evaporate. Even those who somehow manage to avoid the more serious pitfalls struggle to find their place in a world they are ill-equipped to navigate.

The networks don’t cover those stories. But if you’re paying attention, they’re not hard to find. When the stadium explodes in celebration of the latest gold-medal-winning demigod, they’re the stories that leave a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Balance and a life well lived

A well-lived life is a well-balanced life. That’s not news. Balance is something we all learned as kids when our mothers warned that if we didn’t eat our meatloaf and peas, we wouldn’t get any ice cream for dessert.

Suppose you’re an average Joe who loves golf so much that you spend every available moment on the links. Before long, your relationships, your career and nearly every other important part of your life will suffer. The only people who will cheer you on will be other golfers who share your obsessions with the sport. Everyone else will recognize that you have a problem because a lack of balance is a recipe for personal disaster

So why do we celebrate Olympic athletes who live radically imbalanced lives in pursuit of success?

You could argue that we’re not celebrating athletes’ lack of balance, we’re celebrating their achievements. But in today’s money-driven world of sport, athletic achievement and a lack of personal balance go hand in hand. If you want to be the best, you have to focus exclusively on Kuntzman’s single thing at the expense of pretty much everything else. Imbalance is just part of the game.

Watching the Olympics is fun. There’s nothing wrong with cheering on your favorite athletes and rooting for the home team to eke out a victory over the Chinese or the Russians or the Australians.

But for God’s sake, don’t envy the Olympians. If anything, feel sorry for them and recommit yourself to maintaining a healthy balance in your own life.

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