Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Olympic Virtues

The 2010 Winter Olympics ended on Sunday. I'll miss them even as I understand that the power of the Olympics derives from the fact that they occur once very four years. Only once every four years do athletes journey from the five continents of the five rings to gather together. Only once every four years does such an array of talent across such a diversity of sport arrive, live and compete together. Only once every four years can the sheer talent, power and beauty of athletics rise above the commercialism, communalism, jingoism and egoism that swirls around it. The raw imprint of the images of performance seer through the chaff and capture why the ancient Greeks enshrined athletics at the center of their achievements and art and why they believed that the human body reflected and perfected the human mind.

For the Greeks athletic achievement and the development of body and mind reflected virtue. For them it represented the highest form of moral life. Virtue arose from practice and refinement of a way of being in the world; it grew from building habits of thought and focus and disciplined learning of how to approach situations, judge them and act in a manner consistent with virtue.

The opposite of virtue consisted of weakness of will. The weakness emerged from both the failure of judgment, of an inability to see and comprehend the stakes in a situation. This failure of judgment was compounded by the inability to follow through on action. Even if the individual knew the right action, he or she could find the emotional and executive willingness to act in a manner consistent with what their judgment directed.

The Olympics illuminated powerful virtues that lies at the center of athletics. Let me mention a few.

Courage and Fortitude: The athletes competed in sports that require them to face considerable physical and mental challenges. More than a few of the sports courted significant physical danger. The athletes know the risks and many of them, at this elite level, probably all of them, have struggled through physical and emotional adversity and grappled with facing and carrying on in the face of failure.

Faith and Sacrifice:  The athletes believe. They see a possibility for themselves. This vision inspires them and gives them the energy to sacrifice time and opportunity to master the craft of their sport. They give up personal lives and personal pleasures and personal interests to pursue with a single minded devotion the vision of achievement. They practice and practice and practice and condition and condition and condition forgoing many other aspects of life. This discipline and sacrifice is infused with their faith in themselves and their sport and their goals.

Perseverance and Conscientiousness: Elite athletes arrive at their success through a path of failure and learning. One striking fact about many of the athletes was how many of those who succeeded were attending their second or third Olympics. While age ultimately robs athletes of the range of talent, energy and physical, Olympic competition requires robust experience and tempered mastery of the emotional and cognitive discipline of not  choking or losing focus under the pressure of visibility and competition. At this level micro seconds matter in downhills and turns or millimeters in moguls or skating leaps or biathlons. Every competitor at this level has devoted endless time to honing the smallest aspect of their craft and practicing and learning and refining and learning again from mistakes or the successes of competitors. No one arrives here through an easy road, even if it looks easy, that's part of the art of athletes.

I could go on but I hope the point is clear that at its core athletics remains a moral endeavor of a human being stretching and expanding themselves and reminding us of human possibilities. A colleague of mine summarized it quite well when she described searching for a person with:

"The passion of the Olympic hockey players, the joie de vivre of the snowboarders, and the amazing combination of versatility and dedication exhibited in the Nordic combine."

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