The other night, during the Opening Ceremonies of the XXXIst Olympiad, NBC’s announcers exclaimed over the event’s centerpiece: the country by country procession of over eleven thousand athletes, including, for the first time, a team of unaffiliated athletes, refugees of countries divided and devastated by civil conflict. All the athletes, attired in their variously designed and colored national uniforms, proceeded and pranced into Rio’s Maracana stadium, absorbing and appreciating the meaning of their arrival at this long-dreamed-of pinnacle moment.
As I watched, the announcers provided myriad details about the backgrounds of various individual athletes and the roads they traveled to arrive here as actual participants, not mere observers. They mentioned Usra Mardini, a member of the Refugee team, who fled Syria in a dinghy with 19 others. When its motor died, she and her sister, the only ones who could swim, jumped in the water and pushed the boat and its inhabitants for three hours until they reached shore.
Marching into Opening Ceremonies is a big moment for athletes all over the world, a public, and oh-so-welcome acknowledgement of the extraordinary effort and amazing accomplishment required to land in the middle of this global phenomenon. Unquestionably, it’s the right time to extoll the assembly of top athletes, to marvel over their histories and imagine what lies directly ahead in the next sixteen days of Olympic competition. But, it’s absolutely the wrong time to characterize the efforts these elites have made to reach the top echelons of their various sports as some kind of sacrifice.
In fact, there’s never a right time to characterize training for the Olympics in such a way. “Olympics” and “sacrifice” simply don’t belong in the same sentence. A real sacrifice involves doing something for others at one’s own expense, giving up something valuable for the sake of another’s benefit. The act of making choices to pursue a personal goal whose attainment will bring supreme benefit to the individual involved does not qualify. That’s why I don’t understand why anyone would interpret the choices athletes make to train for the Olympics as sacrifice, in any way, shape or form.
Yes, undoubtedly, athletes make trade-offs, and many of them. They arrange their lives to devote their time and energy to training, spend hours at practice, put off other career opportunities and life choices, and in many cases forego financial stability to pursue their chosen sport. They endure punishing training routines and follow strict eating regimens. They schedule early bedtimes and pre-dawn wake-up calls. They move away from home to relocate near top coaches and travel worldwide to compete against the best. They spend years dreaming of strutting their stuff at the Olympics, both participating in Opening Ceremonies and gunning for the top of the podium.
All that is true. But where is the sacrifice? What is it that Olympians give up for others, hurting themselves or their future prospects? How many of us would embrace a life structured around full-on dedication to one’s passion? How many would relish competing at the Olympics?
Having been there myself, I can attest to the fact that all my training and trade-offs were worth the experience. Back in 1984, walking into the L.A. Coliseum as a member of the U.S. athlete delegation to the cheers and applause of tens of thousands of spectators was unforgettable, a unique mix of awe, joy, and excitement. Finally, after all the ups and downs, bumps and bruises, after the boycott of the 1980 Olympics, I’d finally made it to the land of my dreams. The honor of representing my country and the chance to reach the pinnacle of the sport I loved: indescribable.
Athletes train for the Olympics, dedicate years and years, in some cases decades, of their lives to training, because they love it. I sure loved rowing. Of course I loved winning, but I loved training too. I loved how I felt every day when I got to watch sunrise from the water, or pushed myself through a challenging workout that set my lungs on fire and turned my muscles into jelly. I loved the life I got to live as an athlete, dedicated to pursuit of the impossible.
Where is the sacrifice in doing what you love? To me, the luxury of choosing to pursue what you love is many things: a gift, a privilege, an opportunity of a lifetime, but no, it is simply not a sacrifice. Maybe athletes’ parents made sacrifices to help their children pursue their athletic passions, but athletes? No, athletes make trade-offs and choices, always with a clear-eyed assessment of the pay-off for the investment they are making. Yes, they give things up, but always to their benefit, not to their detriment. That’s an investment, not a sacrifice.
You’d think that the week after the Khan family painted a portrait of the meaning of sacrifice on national television and then schooled the nation on what does and does not qualify as such, we would be more thoughtful in throwing that word around. Sacrifice simply does not belong at the Olympic Games, at least not as a characterization of any athlete’s dreams. We who have been lucky enough for the chips to fall in a way that rewarded our training and our natural athletic gifts with a trip to the Olympics know that we chose the paths we have traveled. Give us half a second to choose, and we would choose this path over and over. Not because we arrived at the Olympics, although that’s incredible compensation for our investment of blood, sweat, and countless tears in many cases, but because we have loved the journey, all the little moments that have comprised our lives as athletes, the everyday of doing what we love, of getting to do what we love, in a world where so few either have that opportunity or grab that chance.
Think about Usra Mardini’s dive into the Mediterranean to save the eighteen people aboard that dinghy, the personal risk she took to bring that boat to shore. That story had a happy ending, but make no mistake, that young woman and her sister put their lives on the line for others, offered themselves as a sacrifice to keep them alive. But if you asked her what she’s sacrificed to train for the Olympics, I bet she’d laugh. For her, as for the rest of the world’s athletes now competing on the Olympic stage, she’s thinking she’s damn lucky.
So don’t talk to me about sacrifice. That’s the Khan family’s story. It’s not an Olympian’s.