Finally, after an extra year of anticipation, the Olympics are here. Along with an estimated 3.2 billion other people, I’m eager to see Katie Ledecky, Noah Lyles, and Simone Biles hopefully add to their gold medal collections. And I’m crossing my fingers we get to witness the crowning of new champions like high jumper Vasti Cunningham and collegiate 1500-meter standouts Cole Hocker and Yared Nuguse.
Amid the thrilling drama of watching the best in the world strive to be the best in history, I’m also wondering what effect tuning in to the Olympics will have on the rest of us mere mortal spectators. Will any of us be inspired to better ourselves in some way?
A few years ago at an Olympics watch party, a friend joked that they should put a totally average Jane or Joe in lane 8 for perspective so we’d better appreciate how fast even the slowest Olympic competitors are. But is being impressed the active ingredient in getting inspired?
Following the 2012 London Games, 53 percent of children within 50 kilometers of Olympic Park said they felt inspired to try a new sport or activity. Researchers who followed up several months later, however, found “only small and transient effects on physical activity, mental health, and well-being for those living nearby.” Another study suggests that individuals are actually less likely after the Olympics to take up regular exercise, hypothesizing that “further than simply not inspiring people, the perceived competence gap [between themselves and Olympians] could serve as a demotivating influence on sedentary people.” It turns out we don’t need Jane and Joe to line up next to Olympians. We already know where we stand (correction: sit).
Olympians amaze more than inspire, but that’s not their fault. So what if we could find a new approach in how we watch the Olympics? Could we come away transformed instead of momentarily transfixed?
Instead of zeroing in on the obvious difference in performance level, we’d do better to search for common experiences that connect us. Ironically, when we tune in to see gold medal ceremonies, we’re seeing Olympians at neither their most heroic nor most human moment. For that view, we’d need to tag along with speed skating gold medalist Derek Parra during his shifts at Home Depot where he worked to pay the bills while training full-time. We’d need to see sprinter Allyson Felix walk away from a lucrative sponsorship to become an entrepreneur herself when Nike tried to cut her pay 30 percent after becoming pregnant. Swimmer Yusra Mardini, one of the 29-member team of refugee Olympians isn’t likely to take home any hardware from the Games; she already proved she’s in a class of her own by treading water for three hours when her boat failed in the open sea fleeing her native Syria en route to Greece.
Sure, genes matter, but no Olympian is born with superhuman speed and endurance. They work for years overcoming hurdles of all kinds to develop the skills we see on display for a few minutes every four years. Chances are good that among the more than 11,000 Olympians competing in Tokyo, someone has faced a similar challenge to one that we’re struggling with.
We do the same thing with the way we view the saints. We miss the point if we see the saints as unworldly, perfect beings who were born that way. St. Francis of Assisi was the town party boy. St. Therese of Lisieux was stubborn and self-centered. Servant of God Dorothy Day was broken hearted when her partner, the father of their daughter, left her. If we can’t relate to the Olympian with the laurel wreath around her head or the saint with a golden halo painted around his, just remember: that’s not actually what Olympians and saints wear in their day-to-day lives. That’s how we’ve chosen to depict them after the fact to mark a hard job done exceptionally well.
We put Olympians and saints, quite literally, on a pedestal — then we dismiss their example as seeming unrelatable and unattainable. It’s the people closest to us — our friends, not distant heroes — who have the power to inspire us in a meaningful way. As one respondent in the post-London Olympics survey observed: “I've met a few people that have signed up for the local marathon here because they've seen how a friend or colleague at work has done it and it has shown them that it is perfectly achievable for pretty much anyone.”
Few of us run — literally or metaphorically — in the same circle with Olympians or saints. But maybe this year, if we train our eyes to see the humanity of the Olympic champion, we might come to develop a keener appreciation for the heroic strength of our coworker or neighbor quietly crushing it each day — and be inspired to strive for whatever “faster, higher, stronger — together” might mean in our own daily challenges.