Some Olympics-inspired Musings

I’ve been watching bits of the Olympics all week. The athlete profiles that NBC so irritatingly produces (seriously, people – I just want to watch the events uninterrupted – is that too much to ask?) all follow the same storyline. An athlete dedicates four years (or a lifetime) to training for this moment to prove their ability and win a medal. Sometimes they choke and the story ends in tears. Other times the story ends in victory. The flag flies, the anthem is sung, he or she ascends the podium and receives the highest reward . . .

But what I keep thinking about this week is: What happens the moment you step off the podium?

Suddenly, it’s all over. You’ve reached the pinnacle. You’ve perfected your performance. You’ve achieved your personal best and been affirmed by a world-wide audience. For one moment, millions of viewers know your name and what you’ve accomplished.

And then you go home. Not all Olympic athletes retire, obviously. Plenty of them take a break and then gear up for the next competitions, but for many, everything they’ve worked for in the last few years is suddenly gone. If this is suddenly sounding sad, it’s because it is. Just a few days ago, Bloomberg Business Week published an article talking about the risks of depression and substance abuse many athletes face when they retire. Life is suddenly a little too empty.

It makes me wonder, if sometimes we make our goals more important than they should be?  If achieving a certain goal consumes someone’s entire life, should we admire the strength of focus, the sacrifices, the dedication, or should we worry about the loss of perspective on life?

The article shows how so much training can be compared to heroin addiction and ends with a zinger, “Being an elite athlete is actually not that good for your health.” Does that mean we never pursue difficult goals that stretch us to our limits? Does it mean we should never seek to achieve all that we’re capable of doing? No. But I think it’s something we need to be aware of when we set out on journeys like this. Do we have something to hold onto, after the big moment? Can we maintain a sense of personal worth and identity without the training or the title?

Maybe this doesn’t feel super applicable to our normal non-elite-athlete lives, but I think most of us have had “after party blues” and those feelings of being let down after a high of accomplishment. What do you do to ground yourself again after moments like that?

2 thoughts on “Some Olympics-inspired Musings

  1. “Can we maintain a sense of personal worth and identity without the training or the title?”

    THAT is a very good question. I have officiated sports for 30 years – some at the professional level, some at the local minor sports level.
    I have asked myself – Do I need the title to be a “somebody”? Do I need the badge to be significant? important? influential? Can truly walk away from the sport and still feel the vital sense of self worth? Do I need to continually talk about my past achievements to others – to stress my worth, importance or influence to them? Am I “me” without the striped/badged shirt? Am I addicted to the sense of influence?

    My sense of value, worth and dignity MUST come from somewhere else other than from sports that demand high performance / perfection. One day my level of performance will fade, and my dignity must be able to survive that. Besides, IF I need the badge for my sense of self worth, I will be an awful official! My worth and dignity comes from who I AM, not what I DO.

    Thanks for the provocative thoughts, Natasha.

    • Thanks for the comment Joe! The questions you mention are good ones we should all ask ourselves even if we’re not in sports! “Am I addicted to the sense of influence?” applies in all kinds of other areas too. Thanks for adding your wisdom to the conversation.

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