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Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2002/ 10 Adar, 5762

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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Gold medals and moral antipodes -- WHY do they do it?

I ask myself that question every time the Olympics roll around, because the idea that anyone would spend his entire life preparing for what he may--or, more likely, will fail to--achieve in a few tenths of a second strikes me as an unconscionable waste of energy and time.

That, or a miracle of will and desire that is almost beyond fathoming. I can't decide which. Is it sublime or ridiculous? Worthless or profound?

Does that fleeting yet somehow eternal competitive instant mean nothing in the grand scheme of things? Or is it itself the grand scheme of things?

Is this level of athletic competition the ultimate distraction from real life? Or is it a form of prayer?

We in the stands or watching the screens have always asked these questions about Olympians, since unlike other athletes or artists or experts in many fields, their chances at glory are so few, their moments to shine so bitterly brief and subject to mischance.

But coming as this Olympics does in the midst of the war on terror and so soon after Sept. 11, the enigmas of achievement seem more relevant than ever. More relevant than they have since the last time the low battles and exalted contests of international politics met at the Munich games in 1972, during which Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

Terrorism and the Olympics are, in a sense, moral antipodes, two equally puzzling expressions of global conflict, two manifestations of human nature's wondrous and awful extremes: the one, an unwavering ascent toward cooperative excellence; the other, an unfaltering descent into chaos and destruction.

In fact, they prove that William Butler Yeats was wrong; the best are every bit as full of passionate intensity as the worst. Both are fighting like hell in pursuit of the clarion call of some higher purpose, some sacrifice worth striving for.

Now you may say that the spirit on display this year in Salt Lake City is nothing so mystical and lofty as faith and nothing so powerful as to negate the despair of a planet savaged by terrorist cruelty. But what ascetic monk's discipline, single-minded devotion, self-denial, dedication and pure desire is greater than any Olympic champion's? Certainly his tangible rewards are no less, his spiritual rewards arguably no more.

Is the Olympian's way of life not in some sense a pursuit of the divine--or at least isn't it a baffling act of grace, a clear manifestation of our nature's better angels?

Can we categorically deny that a figure skater's flawlessly executed short program or a downhill skier's peerless slalom run in record time is evidence, however small, of perfection and the human ability to attain it? Who among us can fairly call this insignificant?

And who can say that it is not at least an inkling of an inexplicable force for good at work in our otherwise uninspired lives?

As much as Olympic events are only sports, and sports at bottom are only games, there is something more than pure ambition fueling the athlete's zeal.

It's not money. It's not professional status.

It's not even fame, for that is as fleeting as the ceremony. It's something altogether more ethereal.

Whatever that thing is--call it an irrepressible desire for an ideal, a determined hand reaching always beyond its grasp--it is as stubbornly recurrent a part of us as every deadly sin.

And for that reason alone, it might prove a hopeful antidote to carry us through these awful days.

JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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10/26/01: Getting a grip is all we can do
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09/28/01: Apocalypse now
09/07/01: Swimming with sharks
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07/17/01: Individualism Trumps Identity Politics
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06/27/01: I left the Left behind --- and the Politics of Victimhood
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06/06/01: Tit for tat, David Brock is a turncoat's tale

© 2001, Norah Vincent