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?