Olympic Dreams? Bah, Humbug! Children, Here’s What Really Matters

Gold medallist Stefan Groothuis from the Netherlands jumps in celebration during the flower ceremony for the men's 1000-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Gold medallist Stefan Groothuis from the Netherlands jumps in celebration during the flower ceremony for the men’s 1000-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

On my first date with the man who would much later become my husband, we went to hear a mountaineer describe his world-class feats climbing rock cliffs thousands of feet high in Greenland.

As we walked out, I said: “The whole thing would have been so much more compelling if there had been some children on top of the 5,000-foot granite wall who needed saving, don’t you think?”

Yes, I confess it. Though it may get me kicked out of Boston, I’m just missing the gene that would allow me to derive meaning from sports, whether it’s rock-climbing, Olympic skating, or even — dare I say it? — Red Sox baseball.

I do appreciate the skill and courage and endurance of top-level athletes. Their beauty and grace. But I can never see the games in which they compete as anything more than elaborate and empty artificial constructs created for an entertainment industry that brings in billions from people who somehow do derive some meaning from it.

So you can imagine my reaction as I watch our children consuming the hoopla of the Sochi Olympics. I see them being sold this story: These athletes are American (or Dutch or Japanese) heroes. They had a dream. They overcame great adversity. And now they may reap the ultimate reward — public glory!

Here’s what I want to tell my children. First, all dreams are not created equal. What if your dream were to build the biggest pile of buttons in the world? Would that have the same level of meaning as the dream of curing cancer or writing the Great American Novel?

Second of all, dreams are fine, but what matters far more is finding something you love that can last. I had a wild dream when I was a kid in the Cold War era, that I wanted to be a Moscow correspondent someday. And I had the incredible luck of realizing that dream, but I didn’t want to live in Russia forever, so the dream had to come to an end. And what has really sustained me is that the skill I learned in pursuit of that dream — reporting — was something I loved and could practice forever.

I hope you love playing sports all your lives. They’re great for your health and a source of huge fun. But we must never forget — especially during your school years when sports can be so incomprehensibly overblown in importance — that sports are meaningful only in what they can teach you: how to be a team member. How to lose. How to win.  How to fall and get back up.

They do not ultimately, in any other way, matter. If your home town or home country team wins, it gives you a nice little lift but it doesn’t change your town or country in any significant way.

As for the reward of public glory, I’m far from the first to say that the acclaim and money accorded to athletes is one of our market-driven society’s most disturbing distortions.

What really matters, of course, is virtue, in all its many forms. If I ran a TV network, I’d offer some very different public competitions:

• The Caregiving Olympics

Toughing through a Decathlon is nothing compared to the daily endurance of someone with a full-time job who also cares for high-needs children and a parent with dementia. Where’s that medal? When will there be public prizes for these private feats, for all those endurance athletes who care for the weak, the disabled, abandoned animals, solo elders, who are daily life’s true heroes?

• The Intellectual Olympics

Sure, physical power was paramount back in the caveman days. But let’s face it, to survive in the knowledge economy that is our current-day reality, what you need is brains. So where are all the broadcasts of geography bees and math Olympiads? Believe me, the suspense of watching a seventh-grader attempt to spell onomatopoeia can rival any ski jump.

Back to that first date. My husband and I will forever differ on how we see sports in theory — he’s a gifted athlete and manages to find not just meaning but intellectual interest in contests of skill.

But in practice, what I see is that he’s teaching our children to skate and to ski, getting them past the painful falls, helping them learn the persistence of drilling tricky moves until they become easier.

The Olympic speed skaters may leave me cold, but when I see a parent nurturing his children, lavishing them with his attention and support, that, in my book, gets a gold.

Readers, any other Olympics you’d like to see? 

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  • 151945

    Could this author be any more infuriatingly PC and uncomprehending of sport? I doubt it. Yes, yes, it’s not saving children or curing cancer, but neither is a great piece of art curing cancer. The implicit assumption that the highest good of humanity is ensuring the survival of other people is far from given, especially when you consider all the harm we do to each other and that we’re doing to the planet. As far as I’m concerned, the activities that justify the species are EXACTLY those that strive for beauty, excellence, and truth, whether art, sport, or science. Sport, in its own way, is a spectacular display of the ways in which people can push their minds and bodies to do something physical and concrete which impresses, inspires, and entertains (and imparts useful things like teamwork, but that’s hardly the whole point). In their own way, the 76′ downhill run of Franz Klammer, a reverse slam by Michael Jordan, a perfect 10 by Nadia Comenici (sp?), or first ascent on Everest are every bit the equal of a painting by Picasso or Beethoven symphony. Yes, our society lavishes too much attention on sports stars and not enough on other stars, but if you can’t appreciate the achievements of sport, just admit it and move one, instead of making absurd statements like we should have a caregiving Olympics. The Olympics and other big events, while perhaps overblown, are the means by which we can share in the inspiring and entertaining feats of great athletes. You’re being disingenuous when you say you admire the feats of athletes, but you don’t abide by the competitions…so you just admire them in the abstract? Enjoy that caregiving olympics.

  • http://www.coastingkatie.com/ Katie

    I heard this read while driving to work from Cambridge this morning, and almost crashed my car I was so offended and flabbergasted by its message.

    Your message seems to say that world-class athletes can’t also have world-class brains. I am an Ivy League graduate and a former Division I athlete; I have participated on teams with people who have gone on to win Olympic Gold shortly after finishing their schooling. Indeed, it may not be your dispassion for the Red Sox that gets you run out of Boston, but the number of scholar-athletes in Boston and Cambridge who work so hard at not only their sport but also their education because they feel that both are equally worthy pursuits.

    For you to write off sports because you don’t feel that they “matter” is akin to the person who says “I don’t even OWN a TV,” or smug vegans who would never dream of defiling their body with meat. This does not make you special or a better member of society. People who don’t own a TV are not helping to support less-watched but critically acclaimed shows; by not watching, you help the “Two and a Half Men”s of the TV landscape pollute the airwaves unchallenged. If you aren’t eating meat then you are actively not supporting responsible, local, pasture-raised beef farmers and so you de facto contribute to the status quo of industry farming. If you say that sports – particularly Olympic sports wherein most of the athletes do not make millions of dollars – don’t matter, you are lumping these particularly inspiring athletes who truly compete for love of sport and country in with professional athletes who are just looking for an extra $10million on their next contract. You support the worst parts of the sporting world when you ignore the best and purest parts.

    The biggest issue of all, however, is who are you (or any of us) to declare what actually “matters” in this world? Who are you to say that the pursuit of any one dream is better or more worthy than another? What I hope for myself and anyone I care about is that we become passionate about something that matters TO US. For me currently, that means continuing my intellectually demanding career and then also spending all of my free time working to get back to the top of one of my original sporting passions. That also means cheering on my favorite MLB team, the Cleveland Indians, a team I love because their small-market status means that they are expected to do a little with a lot. Last year they made it to the post-season with the 2nd lowest payroll on record. They accomplished this through smart managing and a truly teamwork-oriented work ethic that left the egos at the door. Finding a way to succeed no matter what your circumstances – everyone should be able to cheer for that.

  • Morlem

    ‘Second of all, dreams are fine, but what matters far more is finding something you love that can last.’

    There is nothing that lasts. Pointless article.

  • Allison Williams

    Wonderful timely discussion. Our city, Richmond, VA, got all wrapped up in the Super Bowl victory of the Seattle Sea Hawks because their quarterback was a graduate of a Richmond school. But the real reason we were so proud of QB Russell Wilson was because of his work ethic and integrity. He showed the world –especially young people — that you must set goals, work hard and live by a moral code. These are life lessons that will serve an athlete or any young person well as they live into their future.

  • Katia

    “Readers, any other Olympics you’d like to see? ”

    Funny, there are NO responses to this question!

  • cuvtixo

    As a Boston sports fan, I’ll burst the bubble and say the secret reason sports are so important to some of us: it’s because everyday life is so awful; for example, the political and social landscape are so soul-crushing and crime and immorality so rampant. It’s wonderful to have little havens for fair play, meritocracy, teamwork, and in short, to read a section of the news that doesn’t make me want to kill myself.
    Ironically, it is the very articles in WBUR which make me flee reality for a few hours and watch the hometeam win! Do you get it now?

    • Katia

      Although that’s a bit of hyperbole, I get the point. Sports is a break from the “eat, work, sleep” part of life.

  • Julie Mathis

    I relate to your perspective, and I think what you have to say is valuable. Here’s a counterpoint that’s also valuable: http://www.raptitude.com/2013/12/why-i-like-something-as-dumb-and-meaningless-as-professional-sports/

  • Alan Daters

    I also agree with the author, sports as healthy recreation, great! Exceling at an activity that is meaningless, except for its ability to make some people feel superior to others, not so much. For those who believe in the “Golden Rule” (treat others as you would want to be treated) competitive sports is hard to accept. Lastly, competitive sports is extremely corrupting, if it is possible to cheat, competitors WILL cheat. Interestingly, this seems to start at the top and work its way down.

    • 151945

      strictly speaking, all human activity is ‘meaningless’ as you put it, but some activities inspire, create beauty, showcase amazing mental and physical ability, etc. Clearly, you don’t watch or understand the value of sports as spectator activity if you can make a patently false statement like sports are “meaningless, except for its ability to make some people feel superior”. Funny, I’ve seen sports inspire others to push themselves to do great things and become better people all-around. I’ve seen sports bring people together for fun and uplift. Yes, there are athletes who cheat…like there are doctors who practice bad medicine, artists who con a gullible public, politicians who steal, and people in any endeavor you want to name who corrupt it…but to conclude that it invalidates the world of sport is just plain silly. Judging from your pic, you might try a sport sometime.

  • Syena Sowden

    I sooo agree with you!!! As a global people we have very screwy behaviors… unconscionable behavior actually. When people go to bed hungry, and so many who suffer, when it could be that everyone have clean water, and enough food to eat everyday. If it was your cousin, or your relatives suffering… Just my opinion. We have put ‘competitions’ above humanity…

    • Bryan Szalwinski

      I can guarantee you, that if we didn’t have athletic competitions, we would still have income inequality and poverty. There would just be some other target of frivolity to attack. I could see your next comments: why do we have art museums when people are suffering? Why do we have symphony orchestras when people are suffering? Why not wipe out anything not contributing to health and welfare? Following your logic, we should have never sent astronauts to the moon, it goes on and on. Part of what makes the world a beautiful place is seeing others strive for excellence in whatever it is they do. Shame you can’t see that.

      • Syena Sowden

        There is no attacking, just food for thought, inspiring discussion… :)

  • Jackie 42

    See Invictus (or read the story of the SA rugby world cup- post-appartheid). Sports are often disproportionally (and only facilely) representative of the human condition, but in this case, sport as a unifying force was transcendent.

    • Katia

      That was a great movie!

  • Jeff Stetz

    Yes! I have finally been given a voice, and a good one at that. Thanks, NPR. Neither myself nor my girlfriend have ever had any interest in Olympics or any organized sporting event. We are embarrassed to express those feelings around anyone else, however, since everyone makes such a big deal out of Olympics, football, or whatever’s in season. In fact, we even spent a good hour watching bobsledding and slalom on two different nights and were simply irked and bewildered at the renewed realization of the complete lack of “real” importance in this world of the glorification of any sport or athlete to the level that they are today.

    Instead, we’re binge watching TED talks and listening to NPR stories.

    • Katia

      Somehow, I don’t think you’ll medal in the writing Olympics, either. “Neither myself nor my girlfriend”. . .

      • willy.t

        Still butthurt and trolling? Impressive!

  • Petr Chloupek

    Dear Carey,

    basically we can frame ideas in many different ways. Either we can describe a reporter as a guard of our democratic rights of free speech or as a person, who gets money from publisher to travel to Moscow, where she sits in the office and writes carefully crafted artificial texts, which are then monetized by putting advertising space around them. Indeed, what is a better example of “nothing more than elaborate and empty artificial constructs created for an entertainment industry that brings in billions from people who somehow do derive some meaning from it” than journalism???
    The first way of thinking we can call idealism and the latter one cynicism.

    Measured by helpfulness for poor children 9.9 of 10 common modern occupations are pretty much useless, including reporting. Sorry. Maybe we should accept that. Maybe some or many of these useless athletes did, do or will do much more for poor children than you do. Still, they are extending borders of ability of humankind and they deserve respect for that, they are bringing to life the Olympic idea and they deserve respect for that and many of them have a civil occupation and I’m not going to despise a policeman or a teacher because they are skiing in their free time.

    • careyg

      Dear Petr — Thanks so much for this response, and believe me, it is not lost on me that reporting is not lifesaving brain surgery. And I by no means despise any of these athletes — as I wrote, I admire their skill and courage. I brought up my own example because I fear that this whole “you need to have a dream” thing — such a strong story-line in American culture, not just at the Olympics — may not be as good a way to orient our children as the storytelling would have us think. And, as I wrote to John above, I thought there was a need for a counter-weight to the tsunami of glorification the Olympics entail. But thank you for a response that has me thinking further –

      • 0kg0on3

        I certainly don’t put too much emphasis on sports but there seems to be an odd discrepancy I’ve noticed with people who claim they just don’t understand sports. I think of athletes as live actors, but with a better skill than remembering some words that someone ELSE wrote (usually, you know excluding writer/actor/director combos). Both tend to get to where they are due to genetic gifts, be it looks by the actors or physical ability by the sports stars. I don’t see how someone could praise movies and movie stars but see 0 value in sporting events. That’s my only issue with the whole thing. If you don’t like either then fine enjoy your boring life, at least you’re being consistent; but I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who voice similar disinterest in sports and point their nose to the sky as if they’re above caveman-esque monkey-like sporting events but will get all up in your grill if you say you don’t think ____ actor or actress is anything special as if a job that a 12 year old can achieve the highest honor in is really a tough job…

        • Petr Chloupek

          An interesting point of view. And I agree with you, that there are many events or activities with quite similar grounds and with a completely different perception.
          And if we are trying to judge something, we should ask about the real base of that, not the framing. So I kind of understand the objections of the author, but I disagree with the way of doing it. If there is some bias in perception (incorrect understanding, whatever), than we are not able to erase the error by doing the same amount of wrongdoing in the exactly opposite way. We should describe the matter truthfully.
          From my point of view the core idea of celebration of peace and unity by common activity as for example sport is really good. A competition is quite natural part of humanity and it is natural in the sense that we inherit it in our genes. So putting some national pride and some cheering in is a good thing too. And it is quite understandable that making this all happen costs some money. And now we have the important part. Should the organizers have underlined the intelligence, maturity and deep understanding by investing the money as effectively as possible? Well, if you read on http://www.sochi2014.com carefully, their statement is exactly like this. The promise is that this whole “circus” is in fact an investment for future generations and as much as possible will be reused for sport related activities. And this sounds good too. As we know, it mostly never happened with the previous Olympics, but still, criticizing it now is just prejudice. If it is found that money was stolen, the nature was destroyed or people were moved out of their homes against their will, the offenders should end in a jail.
          And at last, we have the example of children in need. But we have just incredible large number of all kind of people in need everywhere. And we all should help as much as we can. We should give, help, teach, guide, improve, report, lead, govern and so on in a reasonable way. On the other hand the idea of “Hey these guys seems to be wasting some money over there, we’d better push them to move it to some random place on the planet.” seems wrong to me.

  • Kmcomaha

    I missed that athletic gene. But I caught the bug late in life this past year when my hometown football team started low in the field then rose to win the championship. I found myself glued to my TV watching their games.Then the Seahawks won the Superbowl and the City of Seattle went wild, along with me. A parade was called with only a day’s notice and about 1 MILLION people bused, trained, drove and walked into town in orderly fashion. People were deliriously happy, polite and helpful to each other…one mass of people joined for one purpose. I had a great time but I looked around and wondered what we could do as a nation ,if only we could tap that fervor & join together for better purposes…say cure childhood cancer. How about an Olympics of Medicine, with research doctors competing to see who can cure childhood cancer first? Put them on a field and show us what they got….I’d pay to see that!

    • Oarboar

      As a fellow Seahawks fan, let me introduce you to the Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry, and medicine.

      • Kmcomaha

        I did not make my point, then, Oarbar….We give out Nobel Prize, but I meant tapping into MASS support (“1 million people”) to get excited and behind their “team” doctors to support hitting the goal “Curing childhood cancer” Nobel prizes are given out to individuals for this discover or that (rightfully so), but where is the concerted drive and support to actually BEAT cancer this “season”? The passions of the 12th man gave support and confidence to the team. I have never seen “almost one million” people in the cold, ready to show up on a day’s notice to cheer Nobel prize winners. Now I WOULD pay to see that concentrated, collaborative effort of Nobel team members to find cures. DIPG,or example, is a “terminal upon diagnosis” child cancer…meaning no chance of survival. So how about a Team of Nobel nominees on the field? And the goal to be more than a contribution to science, the goal to be actual cures so more babies and children will live, and not suffer. I can get behind that, I just wish as many people behind the Seahawks felt the same way. (GO Cure!)

        • Katia

          ” I have never seen “almost one million” people in the cold, ready to show up on a day’s notice to cheer Nobel prize winners. ”

          I bet you HAVE seen, at least on TV, thousands of people running a race to raise funds for cancer.

  • Oarboar

    “Hello. I have no interest in your activity, but I’m going to tell you how to enjoy it anyway? Why? Because I’m a complete idiot, that’s why.”

  • John

    This whole article put me on edge. Are you really belittling the spirit of the Olympics or going to tell an Olympic athlete that their dream “doesn’t matter” and that their dogged persistence and pursuit of that dream taught them nothing but teamwork and how to win and lose?

    Are we also saying that by definition athletes don’t overcome any personal strife on par with your care-giving example? Or that athletes by definition didn’t compete in spelling bees as children, that they can’t be intellectuals?

    And what spurned this article? What’s the purpose? Do you believe the public must pick one category of achievement in lieu of others? We can only appreciate physical accomplishment or intellectual or compassion, but definitely not more than one of those. Is your intent we admonish our children for taking interest or extracting some motivation and awe from our species greatest competitors from around the world, pushing each other to be the best? “Divert your eyes and go back to your books, there’s nothing of import to be learned from those meat-heads.”

    Interesting narrative, but I’ll pass and teach my children to take interest in everything and appreciate the lesson to be learned from all endeavors, even those in which I previously have not found to be of much virtue. God forbid our children learn something we missed.

    • careyg

      Dear John — Excellent points, and I totally agree on your child-raising philosophy. I’m by no means saying athletic success precludes personal adversity or intellectual success. The purpose of this article was to be a counter-weight to what feels like a tsunami of propaganda glorifying these athletes — I hoped to put it all a little more in perspective. Thank you for this valuable response — and just for the record, I don’t admonish my kids for enjoying the Olympics — maybe that’s why I needed the catharsis of writing this!

      • Katia

        Well, it’s all over now, and except for the “true believers” everyone will forget about these people for the next four years. To me, that is not “excessive”.

  • Eric

    I lack the gene to appreciate music, it’s not interesting to me. But you won’t see me trying to claim certain pursuits are superior to others. We all have our “Mt. Everest” to climb – the struggle, the lessons learned, and the strength we gain are what matters in the end. Glory is nice too, though.

  • David Williamson

    I have never derived any real meaning from watching sports. It’s fun to get together with friends and yell at the Superbowl, but in terms of finding real substance in the games everyone seems to care about so much, I totally miss the mark. I play sports to stay healthy and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment they bring, but I don’t understand why so many people choose to identify with professional teams and athletes..

    The Olympics and the World Cup are slightly different than standard league sports, though. I find the spirit behind global competition that is peaceful and internationally unifying really inspiring. Such grand and irregular sporting events remind us that we are all the same, we are all capable of working hard to do what we love, and supporting each other in our efforts is just as important as pursuing our own goals. Go Olympics, man.

    • Katia

      I am not going to upvote or downvote this comment. However, I will say that with NHL players on the hockey squads and NBA players on the basketball squads (summer Olympics), it’s professional athletics.

      I do think the article is extremely sanctimonious.

      • Marna Lister

        I agree, sanctimonius indeed!

      • David Williamson

        I completely agree with you. In any instance where there is money or glory to be won, some of the spirit I mentioned is disregarded. However, for every self-serving professional athlete at the Olympics, I do think there are just as many or more who are there for the love of their sport and the honor of representing their nation on a global stage.

  • willy.t

    Gotta love the male ingrained insecure defensiveness. I agree 100%. Playing sports is important. There is almost nothing practical to learn from watching people run around. But hey, everyone needs a way to tune out reality, so I don’t judge.

    • Katia

      Uh, I think you just did judge.

      • willy.t

        Or perhaps I described the behavior of some of the posters? Much different than calling the author an idiot or saying the author isn’t smart enough to figure something out, don’t you think?

        • Katia

          “There is almost nothing practical to learn from watching people run around. ”

          Judge not, lest ye should be judged.

          • willy.t

            Let’s make the distinction between judging a person and judging an activity. We all make judgments about our activities.

          • Katia

            LOL, that’s “different”. This author doesn’t seem smart enough to figure something out, IMO.

    • 151945

      You’re either blind or disingenuous. The world is full of stories of people who were inspired by athletes to do great things, both in sport and outside the world of sport. And if we’re going to criticize an activity because there’s “nothing practical to learn” from it, why don’t we just get rid of art, literature, music, and most other activities that don’t put food on the table. The value of watching sport, if there is value, is aesthetic and emotional. Sport as spectator activity have value because they are the human drama in a microcosm, whether or not you get it.

      • willy.t

        I would say blinded by my own bias into oversimplifying, just as you may be by not looking past the oversimplification. Let me rephrase/clarify – art/literature/music engage us and often promote abstract thinking which has lateral benefits. From a spectator perspective you are more likely to engage in them on an individual level at your own leisure and without social pressure – not to like one team or another or to engage in conversation about teams. If art/lit/music are discussed it is likely around their merits, philosophical issues, or other aspects that improve critical thinking. I am not suggesting getting rid of sports on tv, never did, but I would suggest placing a MUCH lower emphasis on spectator sports as a society. Watching sports does have its place, but I would nuance your supposition that the world is full of stories about people inspired by athletes to do great things outside of the world of sport. I would agree that people have been inspired in their personal lives to engage in physical activities to improve their lives, which can be done without placing such a high social value on spectator sports and I would agree that people have done many charitable works by piggy backing off of the social acceptance/promotion of sports, which could be done with any activity that is popular. Somewhere on here I stated that watching sports is a good outlet for some people to escape reality, but the value that our society places on it facilitates watching sports to an almost religious activity and I take issue with that. To me, that is what the article is about – another perspective, not the law, not sanctimonious anything, just a reminder that sometimes we need to reevaluate what society values.

        • careyg

          Thanks so much, willy.t! You captured exactly what I was trying to do — question what seems to me to be an excessive value placed on spectator sports, given what they are and are not. Judging by some of the reactions, I did poke a sacred cow…though I see a lot of validity in many of the counter-arguments, too. Mainly, glad to have you on my team….Carey
          p.s. Yes, irony of sports metaphor not lost on me…

  • Bryan Szalwinski

    If you ran a TV network, no one would watch.

    • aozolins


    • peterlake

      That would be MSNBC.

  • Nathan Porteous

    isn’t the medal given out for the intellectual Olympics called the Nobel Prize?

    • Oarboar

      I don’t think she’s smart enough to figure that out.

    • willy.t

      Yes, and those intellectuals typically have a positive impact on the world.

      • Nathan Porteous

        You are confusing the Olympics with professional sports

        • willy.t

          Because scientists get endorsements?

          • Nathan Porteous

            No but they do get about 1.4 mil in prize money, and they are likely to have a more stable job than being an athlete (especially if they are an Olympic athlete and not a professional athlete)