What Did We Win in Rio?

Rio-2016The summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro have concluded with great ceremony. American athletes brought home a trove of medals: 121 (more than in any Summer Olympics except 1984 when many Soviet countries boycotted) of which 46 were gold. Am I the only American who is not jubilant? With all those medals, we welcome home many winners but no heroes. Sure Michael Phelps brought hope to the thirty-somethings, assuring them that they can still compete against the twenty-somethings who, in a youth and beauty obsessed world, were ready to send their seniors off to the glue factory. And the commanding performance by American female athletes trumpeted the capacity of women to compete as strongly as men when given equal training opportunities. But these are merely codicils, expanding the doctrine of self-realization through hard work, the mantra of full-throttled competition.

But Rio sent home no heroes. Just the opposite. The childish antics of some American athletes—ill-mannered guests in someone else’s home—underlined the dangerous messages that come with victory-obsessed training. When you are a winner, the regular rules no longer apply to you. Fortune and celebrity promote you to a caste where impulse control and codes of civility no longer get in your way. Work hard so you can play free (and dirty?). The true essence of an Olympian should include nobility of character: fairness, graciousness, generosity, humility. The American Olympic team brought home their metals; but to an American spirit parched for exemplars of higher human aspiration, they came home with empty hands.

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