Why the U.S. is Losing the Olympics by Winning Them

Oscar PistoriusI love my country. I cheered for every American athlete and followed the medal count. But last Saturday I got choked up by a South African man running 400 meters on carbon-fiber legs and it made me wonder…

Why do we watch the Olympics?

Why do people who only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials suddenly sit entranced by synchronized diving and floor routines? Why do we suddenly care about Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps and Ryan Who? How can a major network get away with programming three consecutive hours of marathon running? Seriously, marathon running?

An old friend recently remarked that men tune in for the “geographic tribalism.” For two weeks, we are given something bigger to belong to—a country, a cause, an event that we all have in common. And we watch the medal count because we all want our tribe to be victorious, especially when the triumph is over the entire world.

But I think, deep down, we all sense tribal clashes and epic victories aren’t enough.

We may live our lives like getting on top is the most important thing—like winning will give us a sense of purpose—but in our heart of hearts, we know it isn’t true. Because once you climb to the mountaintop, you still have to climb down. And there’s always another summit.

But if the medal count isn’t enough to keep us focused on the Games, what is?

The NBC producers know the answer.

They know we are all captivated by a good story, and they know a good story is not defined by a character’s outcome, but by what that character has overcome. If an athlete hasn’t overcome a major obstacle, if they haven’t sacrificed and endured to get where they are, they know the athlete will not capture our attention.

So, the producers of the Olympics go out of their way to uncover hardship, to illustrate conflicted characters and their resilience in overcoming.

During the first week of the Games, I saw a commercial in which American athletes talked about the sacrifices of training—not watching television for a year, or not reading the popular book that everyone else is reading (thank God—the image of Michael Phelps reading 50 Shades of Grey might be enough to end my Olympics-watching career).

I’ll be honest, though: the discipline described was impressive, but it didn’t move me.

Because it doesn’t make for a good story.

If I went to a movie, and the protagonist was seeking an Olympic gold medal, and the entire movie was scene after scene of him looking longingly at the blank television screen, or standing outside the window of a bookstore (if one still exists) with tears in his eyes, I’m not sure I would love that character.

But last Saturday, I was reminded of the power of a redemptive story.

When I watched a South African man run on carbon-fiber legs.

Oscar Pistorius was born without fibulas—the bone running from knee to foot—and his parents made the painful decision at the age of one to have both legs amputated below the knees. And then his family spent a lifetime living the redemption of it. He was encouraged to join his brother in every activity. If his brother climbed a tree, so did he. And if you can climb a tree with no legs, why not become an Olympic runner, right?

As my eight-year-old son and I watched Oscar prepare for his first Olympic heat, and as the announcers narrated his story, my son turned to me and exclaimed, “I’m rooting for him!”

I’m rooting for him.

Oscar had almost no chance of winning. Yet, it was the first non-American my son had cheered for. Suddenly, tribalism and triumph had been thrown out the window, and both of us were captured by the power of a story that is not about outcome, but about overcoming.

As Oscar came in second place in the heat, achieving his goal of reaching the semifinal, something was caught in my throat. Something that wasn’t there when I watched a commercial about sacrificing television for a year.

You see, in a good story, we pull for a character because we are drawn to a soul bent on overcoming. If they persist and endure and move through the conflict and pain and struggle, we love them. The outcome itself no longer matters. Rocky’s victory was to stay on his feet for fifteen rounds. Aron Ralston’s victory was to simply remain alive with one less arm than before. And a thousand beloved romance films end simply with the character finding love. These are not extraordinarily triumphant outcomes. They are actually quite mundane. But we love the characters all the more, for what they overcame in the story.

And I think the same may be true for the stories you and I are living:

If we focus on triumphant, glorious outcomes in our lives, we will be impressed with ourselves, but we won’t love the character we are becoming.

If we spend our lives seeking safety and minimizing conflict and hardship, we will leave ourselves with little to overcome, and the love we feel for the characters we are living will be just as little.

If we want to love ourselves—if we want to carry within us a deeply-seated, unshakeable sense of value and worth and belovedness—we will need, finally, to make our lives about overcoming.

If we became people surrendered to the task of overcoming, I think we would look in the mirror and see a character we can root for. I think we would write the final scenes of our lives with a sense of peace and freedom. And I think our final scenes might be characterized by an entirely different kind of glory.

Perhaps, we would even write a scene like this:

When Oscar Pistorius’s semifinal heat was over, he had finished dead last. Eighth out of eight. But in the midst of runners celebrating the joy of victory, and other runners hunched over in the agony of loss, the man who had won the race—Kerani James of Grenada—searched out a last-place amputee on manufactured feet. Kerani James found Oscar, and he traded racing bibs with him. He gave Oscar the identity of the winner.

Not because he won, but because he overcame.

Your thoughts? What Olympic stories of overcoming have moved you? What characters did you root for? Remind us what a good story is, and give us hope for living one in our own lives.

About the Blog: My very first post, back in January, focused on story and redemption. Then, I credited Don Miller with impressing upon me the value of using story as an organizing principle in our lives. Once again, with this post, I am grateful for his writing. You can read that first post of mine by clicking here.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • BrianT

    Great post! Just want to say I have been enjoying your articles, thanks.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks, Brian!

  • Willa Goodfellow

    Kayla Harrison was sexually abused by her judo coach for four years. Now he is in jail, she has a new coach and a gold medal, first US gold in judo. I posted the video where she spoke about the ambiguity — how judo was the arena of her abuse and yet also how she overcame it. I’ll keep pondering and keep writing about that story.

    • Willa Goodfellow

      Though I would note — NBC didn’t cover that one. The Boston Globe is my source.

      • Catharine Phillips

        A reminder to find a range of sources for stories of healing/redemption. May we all be part of that range, telling whatever stories we may find. Yeah to the Boston Globe! Thanks, Willa. And of course, thanks Kelly, for beginning the conversation!

        • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

          Thanks Catharine! And another great story about Oscar and a young girl named Ellie was shared over on the Facebook page.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Hi Willa, Thank you for this example. Indeed, I had not heard of Kayla. It sounds like she is a good example of someone who has overcome AND found the winner’s circle!

  • PTSD is Normal (@PTSDisNormal)

    “Tell a redemptive story with your life.” I hear you! Great thoughts.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thank you, Elaina!

  • James M

    NBC covered the Kayla Harrison story extensively but only after she won the gold medal. Since she wasn’t in an often covered sport (Judo is rarely shown on NBC during the Olympics), you didn’t hear anything about her story until she won everything. I feel sad to think that I would not have heard her story if she would have lost a match.

  • Heather

    Another brilliant post! Thank you for your wisdom, insight and inspiration!