I have to admit that I have been glued to the TV in recent days watching the Olympics. I never realised before that I could care so much about cycling, gymnastics, or even sailing. The viewing experience has been sweetened by the fact that Team GB (Great Britain) has been winning many more medals than usual.
My near obsession with the Olympics made me wonder why it is that I love sport so intensely. What is about watching someone run 26 miles in just over two hours or 100 metres in less than ten seconds (9.69 seconds in the case of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican gold medallist) that is so compelling? Is it vicarious exercise, enabling me to justify not bothering to keep fit? Or is it just a distraction, allowing me to live through the dreams and successes of others and so neglect my own aspirations?
I think partly, yes. But I think there is something much more besides, something transcendent, even archetypal. The Olympic athletes exemplify many virtues which I would describe as spiritual ones. I might even say that athletes are the nearest thing we have in modern times to spiritual ascetics. Why this comparison?
Above all, Olympic athletes exemplify discipline and dedication. To train oneself to compete and even win at this level requires single-minded attention to detail, and an unrelenting passion to fulfil one’s objectives. It also requires athletes to sacrifice many other life options. Besides this, athletes exemplify a level of self-confidence and determination that I find totally inspiring. Imagine believing that one day you could be the fastest cyclist in the world? While this may not be everyone’s aspiration, it may give us confidence that we may realise our own, perhaps more modest, goals. It almost makes a mockery of my self-doubt.
You might object that the goal of athletes is essentially selfish, and I think there is some truth in this. But the financial rewards for many athletes are very slight; for instance, the British swimmer, Rebecca Adlington, who won two individual gold medals is funded to the tune of less than $20,000 per year.
While sporting achievements like hers will not solve all the ills of the world, they nevertheless exemplify humanity’s capacity for self-transcendence, and underline the possibility that no matter what one’s current situation, one can always improve. Not everyone will or can become an Olympic gold medallist but everyone can pursue his or her own vision, goals, and aspirations with greater clarity, intensity, focus, and rigour. As I watch athletes competing at such a high level in the Olympics, I can begin to believe this for myself.
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