Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Buddhist Looks at the Olympics

I am thinking tonight about the Olympics.  Earlier, I was going to title this "Why I hate the Olympics," but that was the hyperbole of high summer fire.  Actually, under that anger I am sad; what I hate is to be in a room where sports is on TV, including the poor young gymnasts who try so hard and often land so badly.  Last night we saw teenage boys cry on camera while the coach glared at them. 

I was hanging out in the living room and Tom had the Olympics on the TV.  So I saw an exhaustive exploration of how badly Michael Phelps, formerly known as the Greatest Olympian ever, had failed.  And right there is what I don't like about sports:
Somebody wins.  A lot of people lose.
Ryan Lochte Grillz
Poor Phelps.  Four years ago he won eight gold medals and was King of the Mountain. He was way too young for such adulation.  He went through a depression and decline, finally got back in training, but lost badly.  To the left is the guy who won, whose humility is evidenced by the diamond mouth jewelry he put in for the cameras.

Phelps is better off than the Chinese gymnast Wang Yan who landed on her head in a fall in 2006.  You can find a video of it if you have the stomach for it.  A report from June 20 of this year says she has not walked again.  Somehow it reminds me of Michael Jackson's death; poor kid, trying to be as good as ever.  No, better.  He bought that story.  He couldn't sleep nights for the terror of not surpassing himself.

It is the nature of contests that a winner soon starts to sweat the future - can she do it again?  All novelists face this.  One good novel is not enough; the next one has to be better (and seldom is).  I myself have won a couple of awards and honors for my writing, and it felt good, though the elation got briefer each time.  I remember being high for over half an hour when I won a grant for my poetry. 

But my win meant a hundred people didn't win.  I know how that feels, too.  The wins empowered me, but not as much as the encouraging words of one professors, one poet, one listener who were moved by my poetry.  We do not need contests to encourage people to pursue what excellence in what they love.  In fact, I'm sure they dis-courage a great many people at the expense of a lucky few. 

The Olympics pit nations against each other.  Team sports - like college football, say - pit smaller tribes against one another, and people gather and scream, identifying with their warriors.  One school wins - maybe Penn State, where a winning football program was much more valuable than protecting children from a predatory coach. 
Joe Paterno's statue being removed

Just forget about the problems of brain damage we now realize are caused by concussions, and think about this me/you, My Team stuff in terms of human development.  I think I understand the psychology of it.  People who may be a big disappointment to themselves, men who don't earn as much money as Steve Jobs, women who were never thin or beautiful, these people pay to watch surrogates beat a fictional enemy.  It is, someone told me, a form of ritualized warfare.

Is warfare necessary?  Maybe sometimes it is.  But is this necessary?  I don't think so.  I don't think it is helpful to our growth as human beings, and as civilizations, to indulge in fantasies of winning by proxy.  I think human beings can do better than this. I would like to see our children be taught to say no to harming themselves in the pursuit of winning.

All this made me recall the poem by A.E. Housman that beautifully paints the real situation of the young athlete who's on top of the world for that one instant, that gold medal.  I'll paste it in below.  And I'd like to comment that, speaking as a poet and artist, and as a Buddhist, I wish I lived in a civilization of nonharming, in which poets were valued more than quarterbacks and nurses admired more than entrepreneurs.

The first verse of this poem imagines the young man being carried through town on people's shoulders.  The second verse pictures his coffin carried on the shoulders of pallbearers.  The last lines draw a connection between early fame and youthful beauty.  The rhyming couplets make it is an easy poem to memorize.
To an Athlete Dying Young
The time you won your town the race   
We chaired you through the market-place;   
Man and boy stood cheering by,   
And home we brought you shoulder-high.   
To-day, the road all runners come,     
Shoulder-high we bring you home,   
And set you at your threshold down,   
Townsman of a stiller town.   
Smart lad, to slip betimes away   
From fields where glory does not stay,  
And early though the laurel grows   
It withers quicker than the rose.   
Eyes the shady night has shut   
Cannot see the record cut,   
And silence sounds no worse than cheers  
After earth has stopped the ears:   
Now you will not swell the rout   
Of lads that wore their honours out,   
Runners whom renown outran   
And the name died before the man.  
So set, before its echoes fade,   
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,   
And hold to the low lintel up   
The still-defended challenge-cup.   
And round that early-laurelled head 
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,   
And find unwithered on its curls   
The garland briefer than a girl's.


  1. I think that all the money that is spent on things such as the Olympics is such a waste!! There are so many more worthwhile things :(

  2. That's a point I didn't even think about. Thank you. And that money is spent while people are homeless and children are hungry. It's good to hear from you.