I stole the title, of course, from Charles Dickens, but I think it fits the Olympic games quite well. I think I probably watched more Olympic events during the 30th Olympiad than I have in any previous Olympic games, and I believe that the games showcased both the best and the worst of the human race.
The best? Well, the games provided the platform for demonstrating some of the greatest athleticism of which humans are capable. The breaking of world records, of course, would be evidence of that even without my commentary, and I assume that anyone who watched the games or followed the medal count or read a news story about the Olympics is aware of the exceptional athletic ability of the Olympic athletes. Even those who finished last in their respective events typically perform at a much higher level than the rest of us could ever hope to obtain. So I will not dwell much on the athletic accomplishments.
Instead, I’d like to highlight other “bests.”
While she just won her third consecutive gold medal in women’s beach volleyball with her partner Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh Jennings makes it a point after every match to go around and shake hands or exchange high-fives with every official, line judge, ball boy or girl, and sand sweeper. Her recognition of the “little people” that help make every athletic competition successful is refreshing.
U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman paid tribute to her coach Mihai Brestyan by leaving the medal podium and putting her gold medal around his neck. Later she tweeted about how much he means to her and expressed her appreciation again. In a day and age when so many athletes bask in the glow of their accomplishments all by themselves, it was nice to see someone acknowledge that she did not win gold all by herself.
The flip side of that, of course, would be an example of the worst. As much as I respect Jamaican Usain Bolt and his incredible sprinting, his arrogance is off-putting to say the least. Anyone who repeatedly refers to himself as a legend and “the best” would do well to tone back the chest-thumping a bit. NBC commentator Bob Costas said it well when he commented that it would be difficult for anyone to think more highly of Bolt than he does of himself.
The track also provides another example of the best. South African Oscar Pistorius inspired the world by competing against “able-bodied athletes” in several sprinting events, despite having had both legs amputated below the knees at the age of eleven months due to being born without fibula. To see someone determine to overcome such a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and rise to the level of running, on Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetics, against the best runners in the world should serve as reminder to all of us that most of our limitations are self-imposed.
An example of the worst would be the badminton teams…yes, badminton…from China, South Korea and Indonesia that were charged with “not using their best efforts to win a match” (The Guardian) but instead losing games on purpose in an effort to get into a more advantageous bracket. It is unfortunate anytime an athlete seeks to skew competition in his or her favor through any kind of cheating, but there is simply no excuse for athletes on the world stage losing matches on purpose in order to try to create an easier path to a medal.
Also on the worst list would be the revelation that Chinese diver Wu Minxia’s parents kept from her the news of her grandparents’ death and her mother’s breast cancer for over a year, not telling her until after she won the gold medal in the 3-meter springboard diving competition. Why? According to Yahoo! Sports, “…so as not to interfere with her diving career.” According to her father, “It was essential to tell this white lie.” Nonsense. No athletic pursuit should ever take precedence over familial bonds. This story serves to highlight the extreme, and, I dare say, ridiculous, pressure that is placed on Chinese athletes, who are often removed from home at a young age and placed in government-run training facilities.
I could go on… Jordan Wieber demonstrated the best when she pulled herself together after not making the final competition for the gymnastics individual all-around (despite performing better than 56 of the 60 contestants) to politely and graciously answer inane questions from NBC’s on-the-floor reporter, to congratulate and encourage her teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, and to perform well during the team all-around competition. David Boudia demonstrated the best when he overcame the lackluster performance of the platform diving prelims–squeaking into the semifinals in 16th place (when only 16 advance) to win the gold medal in the finals. Grenada’s Kirani James demonstrated the best when he exchanged bib numbers with Oscar Pistorius after the 400 meter semifinal, showing his respect and appreciation for Pistorius and his accomplishments. Gabby Douglas demonstrated the best when she directed the glory to God after her gold medal winning performance, and refused to make too big a deal about it when she did not score so well in individual apparatus competition a few days later. Michael Phelps demonstrated the best by becoming the most highly decorated Olympian ever…and insisting that he will indeed retire now that the Olympics are over. Like I said, I could go on…
Athletic events are incredible and wonderful opportunities for individuals and teams to demonstrate the amazing things that humans can do with their God-given talents. And while I enjoy competition as much as anyone (and perhaps more than most) let’s not forget that sporting events are, when it comes right down to it, games. That’s why the event that just concluded in London is accurately referred to as the Olympic games. They’re fun, they’re impressive, and there is nothing wrong with taking them seriously. Each athlete should try his or her best. But personal worth does not hinge on Olympic medals. Success must not be dependent on one brief moment of an individual’s life. People matter because of who they are–created in the image of God–not because of what they do.