Monday, April 21, 2008

Why the Olympics Matter

Yeah, there's all that stuff about national pride, and international cooperation, and about the benefit of sublimating aggression away from violence and toward symbolic competition, and about the excellence of the human spirit. And some of all that stuff actually has the benefit of being true. But such talk is all so lofty, so academic and theoretical. It's just another spectator sport -- something we watch from far off, and cheer because it pleases us to do so. It doesn't really matter. At all.

What matters isn't some statistical shift on an idealized continuum of general human welfare. What matters is individuals.

The Olympics matter to the people competing in them. The Olympics matter when they touch and change lives, for the better. By the example of and demand for excellence that they afford. But even that is too abstract.

A specific. There's a young girl, Marin Morrison, who's qualified for the Olympic swim team, even though she can't use her right arm or much of her right leg. Brain cancer. Says her mother, "there are days when she's not feeling well, when all I want to do is nurture her. Wrap her in a blanket and make her some hot tea. But she won't let me. She puts her suit on, heads for the car and says to me, 'I'll be waiting for you in the car.'" Waiting to train at the pool.

I don't want to get out of bed if the wind is blowing.

"Marin Morrison is extraordinary, not because she has cancer, but because she has life. She is a one-person celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit. She isn't defined by what she has overcome, but by the remarkably incandescent way she lives.

"'She is truly my hero,' her mother said. 'There's never a moment when she's angry. She's never once asked, "Why is this happening to me?" She amazes me. She's an inspiration and she's inspiring a lot of those other Olympians out there with her drive.'"

The Olympics matter because they have given focus and purpose to someone who has a very good excuse to give up. We would hope that somehow the attention Peking is getting with regard to its tyranny in Tibet might bring relief to an oppressed race. But all our boycott did in Moscow 28 years ago was bring a tit-for-tat boycott in 1984. Carter's boycott did no good for Afghanistan. It probably did harm. Who can know. And now, protests against a torch relay seem futile, and in any case hope is expensive.

Young Marin isn't living for hope. She's indulging in life itself.

Having been shocked by the causal indifference the world has toward life and happiness, I will not allow myself to be tricked once more by hope, although I cannot help but be moved. We'll see how it goes. Maybe she'll win something. If not, maybe she'll at least live. I don't know if we have the right to expect such mercies. I don't know if we should bother actually to hope for them. What claim do we have on the will of God?

But it doesn't matter what we hope or expect or claim. It matters what we do. It matters what we do with what we have. Young Marin has cancer, and she's doing the Olympics with it. She puts all our idle dreams to shame. If you've ridden on my wild ride for any time, you'll know I'm a small and bitter man. The world is larger though, for knowing that it holds such lovely souls as Marin Morrison. Who knows -- maybe there's room for hope after all.



Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful post!

How I came to know of Marin? My daughter is a competitive swimmer in Illinois (nowhere close in proximity to Marin). "Therese's" team stayed after practice one day to learn about Marin and view a tape of one of her swims. For your viewers, here is a Link to one of her races.

And I hope it's okay, Jack, that I'm leaving a link below to photos of one of your wrestling matches. It will help Marin fans that have found their way to your blog understand why, in part, you were able to write such a great piece.

Wrestling: No Sport Like It


Jack H said...

Well thank you kindly.

Brazilian jiu jitsu. Best sport ever. Even I, ancient old thing that I am, can see it.



Anonymous said...

I read somewhere on your blog that you compete with a younger age group, Jack. How old are you in these pictures?


Jack H said...


Assuming, of course, that this paradigm of masculine beauty is indeed myself. There's some controversy over the matter, and I'm far too humble to just come out with it.



Anonymous said...

Yes, humility at any age. Good quality! :)

Here's the Link to Marin's Seattle Times story. It seems to have up and changed!


Anonymous said...

Hi Jack,

I wanted to let you know that Marin passed away January 2nd. Her parents buried her on a hill in California overlooking the ocean. She indeed was able to compete in the Olympics, however, her health was quite poor by that time. She was also able to make the trip to see George W. Here's a video on Marin that was put together not too long ago. I wonder if a movie will be made of her life. She was well enough known and her story is so courageous and inspirational. Letting her compete in the Olympics was a miracle from the Lord. When I told my daughter that, she said, "Mom, Marin's whole life was a miracle." Indeed!


P.S. You are welcome for the prayers, by the way ... God be with you! :)

Jack H said...

Thank you. Grace wouldn't be any less valuable if it were more common.