At the top of the hill we sat on our sleds—or in some gloriously reckless moments, threw ourselves onto the sleds head-first—and rocketed down the icy slope. Sliding (or sledding) was a particular favorite of ours during the Winter Olympics. In the evenings, we were glued to the Olympics telecasts.
The skating. The skiing. The bobsled. The luge.
After school and on weekends we flung ourselves down the Sand Bank, racing each other, or our own best times and best distances. Sometimes we crashed into tree trunks. Soaring off a hillock dubbed “Dead Man’s Point” we knocked the wind out of ourselves and almost cracked our spines for glory. In our imaginations, we were the Olympians then.
The 2014 Winter Olympics have just concluded. This year I watched them, nightly, attentively, as I haven’t watched an Olympics telecast since I was a kid. Many of the Olympic events are new, unheard of in the 1970’s. Super-slope, for example. And snowboarding. But that Olympic spirit is the same. Like the Tennyson poem we all memorized in high school: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. That quest for Olympic glory.
Glory doesn’t always need to be validated with a medal. Sometimes merely competing is a badge of honor. Sometimes attempting, and then failing with grace and humility, is the prize. To be in the game. To strive. To give one’s all. Not to yield, even if ultimately one doesn’t win. That is Olympian spirit.
Watching the 2014 Winter Olympics, I was struck particularly by the razor’s-edge closeness of many of the competitions, especially the skiing, snowboarding, and downhill events like the bobsled, luge, and skeleton. The difference between winners and losers could be tenths of seconds or points. Hundredths of seconds or points, even. The difference between winning or losing, medaling or not medaling, was the width of a hair. And yet it was everything.
Most of the Olympians interviewed in 2014 were gracious in defeat as well as victory. Winners often remarked that their win was a win on that particular
day. That on any other given day, any one of their Olympian peers could easily have won by a hundredth of a second.
Olympic competitors are firsts among equals. They are all exceptional. They are all magnificently striving figures out of mythology, the kind we don’t encounter any longer outside the dusty pages of Greek history books or the frames of CGI film extravaganzas. To be an Olympian, win or lose, is to be a winner, just as it’s an honor simply to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Not long after the 2014 Winter Olympics concluded, Hollywood held its own titanic competition, the Oscars. The races were closer this year than in many years. The nominees were all so worthy, the wins were like Olympic wins, a
matter of a hundredth of a second, a hundredth of a point. Great entertainers hurl themselves into their roles the way a great skeleton rider will hurl herself down the track, head-first, nothing but the slenderest sled between her and the icy track at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour.
That’s how winners of any stripe move through life, with the wonder and optimism and energy of children, literally or metaphorically diving head-first onto the sled and racing down the hillside. They might win, they might lose. If they lose, it is only by a breath. They have won nonetheless, because they
dared, and strove, first among equals.