Submitted by: Michael Spindell, guest blogger
To mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost –
But how you played the Game.”
by Grantland Rice
How many of us grew up with the paraphrase of these words ringing in our ears as we participated in all of the competitions that humans partake in. These sentiments represented the epitome of humans engaging in fair contests, the object of which was defining dominance in a particular field and/or activity. We were all supposed to be “fair”, “play by the rules”, honor our opponents and most of all treat them with respect. Much of this was first defined in Western Culture by the Code of Chivalry which not only defined how men hacked each other to death on the battlefield, but also how they were to treat the “fairer” (weaker) sex. As the merchant class rose and nobility declined, Chivalry was subsumed in Western Culture by the notion of “fair play”. That all of these concepts have been but hypocritical touchstones meant to add the veneer of human nobility, to human competition, is rarely admitted by those who promote competition for financial and/or political gain.
Thoughts of this came to me as I watched the Olympics this year, listening to the portentous palaver of the announcers, discussing the contests and the purported values behind them. Yes I felt tears of patriotic pride as Gabby Douglas won the gymnastics Gold Medal, but I also saw the pain on the face of Viktoria Komova, who “only” won the Silver Medal. Implicit was that the Russian gymnast had failed in her quest and that she would forever be marked by this failure. This is the hypocritical dichotomy that is pursued in all avenues of competitive human endeavor when reported upon by the media.
Humanity reached the top of the “food chain” by defeating the competition over eons of strife with other fierce predators. While there are still valid arguments on each side of the question as to how human society developed, whether in a spirit of cooperation, or as a rigid imposition of the will of the “leader”, we cannot question that we attained our status because of our predatory talents. Once the “order” of society was imposed humanity began to learn to sublimate battles to the death for proof of supremacy, into “contests” of talent. We learned to sort out our “hierarchy” through these contests and indeed they have developed into a wide range of competitions that most of us use to determine our places in the world. This is not a controversial idea, but even so I would like to take a step back from it and look at the obvious background of human competition that is missed as we “crown” our champions and pity those who could not measure up. The Olympic Movement is a very problematic one. I could go into its mixed history of bigotry, commercialism, deception and tragedy, but that is perhaps for another time.
What I want to explore is the short shrift given by the media to the incredible individual efforts made by so many people who have dedicated their lives to attaining the worldwide stage that the Olympics represent and yet have fallen short of being able to participate, much less attain medals. Since attaining its worldwide popularity the Olympics has bred the spirit of competition in various fields in all corners of the world. For events like gymnastics, or swimming, to even begin to think of getting to the Olympics requires a dedication in early childhood to endless hours of practice and competition on all levels. This is actually true of success in all sports and as the dedicated child grows the competition begins to “weed” out those who lack the talents and/or dedication to their chosen competitive field.
An eight year old that has beaten all those in her county at swim meets finds herself finishing last in a Statewide competition. She might shrug off that defeat and redouble her training efforts, possibly increasing her talents to the point that by High School she has become competitive Statewide, or she may simply adjust to the possibility that the “Olympic Dream” is not possible for her and go on to pursue other avenues towards her personal vision of success. Is only being the best swimmer in ones’ county a failure?
No one would have ever, at any stage of my life, have confused me with being an athlete. Yet I spent much of my childhood participating in all kinds of sports, though never on an organized basis. I have my memories of triumphs and my memories of defeats. I spent hours in solitary practice sessions learning to throw and field a ball off a brick wall. My place in the pecking order was determined in “pick-up” ball games, since I was always chosen near to last. As much as I desired to be considered “good” among my peers, I came to realize that for me being considered “fair” was a triumph. What of those I played with who were the “Captains” choosing, or the first choices? Some went on I suppose to play organized baseball in High School but none ever made it in college sports, or went on to play professionally. This is as it is for most people who engage in competition on all levels. It is but a special few that rise to the point where they can represent their nation on the world stage.
The question remaining in my mind, as these games draw to their conclusion, is whether those “losers” feel satisfaction in the fact that even though they’ve achieved no medals, their lifetime of effort was worth it? Do we really live in a world where it only matters “how you played the game”, or is it that only “winning” that counts? When you start so young to dedicate yourself to the achievement of success in sport does “failing” leave you with emptiness and recriminations?
Aside from sports our particular American culture is one that worships perceived “success”. This success can range from tangible achievements in given fields, the amassing of great wealth, political office, academic recognition and/or simply being born into a notable family. With the advent of the mass media we see that even appearing briefly on television can turn someone of little accomplishment into a “celebrity”. Jonathan Turley, the creator of this blog is a legitimate “celebrity”. He appears regularly on TV, is renowned for his championing of the Constitution via both the courts and in the press. To all of us who sojourn here, he is well-deservedly famous and a figure of respect for all that he has accomplished. Yet with it all, Professor Turley is nowhere near as famous a celebrity as the “Octomom”, Paris Hilton, or the Kardashian family. With respect to the Kardashian’s, remember it was their patriarch, the lawyer Robert Kardashian, who put them into a position to achieve fame by being O.J. Simpson’s original attorney in the murder case. In the Celebrity Fame Game, all that our Professor has going for him is defending a family made famous by being polygamous on a reality show. The quite tangible accomplishments of his career are well recognized by his peers, his students and his followers, yet it is doubtful that he will ever be offered his own “reality” show, or even discussed on “Entertainment Tonight”.
At my advanced age, I can truthfully say that I look back on my life so far as a successful one. In my own particular terms I’ve played the game well, despite lack of wealth, celebrity and/or outside recognition of achievement. Perhaps though I was never driven, or drove myself to achieve anything more than a woman to love and the fulfillment of children resulting from that love. To be perfectly honest I’ve always had an arrogance about myself to the extent that I’ve always liked and believed in me, so I’ve never really cared what other people thought of me. I would hope that most people would feel that way about themselves, but my training and my career have shown that not to be the case. When I see a sixteen year old singer in front of millions of people on “American Idol” saying that winning that contest is the most important thing in their life, I believe that singer and I grieve for that singer. I understand now that outward trappings of success often mask inner pangs of longing that will never find solace, or peace.
This is then my tribute to all of those whose losses the mass media culture decries as failure. In my opinion it is “how you play the game”, since in the end as mortal beings there is little comfort in the immortality of records, money or other achievements. Perhaps it is that belief though that has ensured my lack of outward fame, wealth and celebrity. If only I tried harder, dedicated myself more and refused to accept losing I could have been a contender. Since I’ve already admitted my arrogance in not caring about your judgment of me, perhaps you might give your own judgment of yourself, or whether you think playing the game well, is just as good as winning.
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger