Archive for February, 2002

Farewell, Olympians

February 22, 2002 Comments off

It’s almost time to extinguish the giant flame, and shoo away the crowds, and fold up the Spiderman suits, and shelve the endless highlight clips, and get on with our lives. We’ll do without the Winter Olympics for four years, and then another generation of super athletes and referees will stand before the world and vow to compete without doping and judge without making deals. But in spite of some all-too-human failings, while the Olympians are away, I’ll miss their gigantic twirling leaps, their almost inhuman speed and precision, and, especially, their extraordinary passion.

It’s best to admit, though, that the athletes are not like you and me. In this age of skin-tight racing clothes, you see it first in the beautiful curves of their bodies, the powerful muscles they have crafted in years of working out. You see it in the privacy and intensity of their faces as they prepare to compete, and in the well-earned brilliant smiles and searing tears when they are done. Who would not want to be as alive as they are? But how many of us are willing to land hard on a broken foot or fight our way back to excellence after a liver transplant? In some ways the athletes are so much better than those of us watching at home. I am surprised they never mention it.

A classical pianist touched upon this point once in an interview, when she complained about the fans who came up to her and said, “I would give anything to be able to play the piano the way you do.” The pianist confessed that she longed to reply rudely whenever someone said this to her. She wanted to say, “Do you mean practicing nine hours every day for years and years? That’s what you have to give, but since I’ve never heard of you I have to assume that, actually, you wouldn’t give much of anything at all. You don’t have it in you.” Her anger wasn’t pretty, but the pianist was trying to acknowledge how much time and labor she had traded for her beautiful skill. Like the Olympians, she had two rare talents, one for her chosen field and one for the focused sacrifice that makes excellence possible.

Every field has stars who display those two talents. Three years ago a reckless driver hit Stephen King on the side of the road and broke bones in 24 places in his body. Five weeks later the novelist was back at his desk writing, even before the pain of the injuries and the reconstructive surgeries had subsided. King says he writes 2000 words every day, starting in the morning and staying with it until he finishes the day’s work. Now in his fifties, he has written more than thirty best-sellers, something you have to admire whether you’re a fan of his or not.

Like the athletes, King learned how to shape his life around something he loved. I remember thinking one day when I was a kid that it would be really neat to have written a book. I was well on my way to middle age before I figured out the problem with that visionary moment. I had the verb tense all wrong. Sure, it might be really neat to have written a book, but Stephen King probably says to himself, “It is really neat to be writing this book,” and keeps on saying it every day until the book is written. No passionate skater gets up for a pre-dawn workout because he thinks it would be really neat to have been an Olympic athlete. That’s too pale a dream for one who is truly great.

Maybe the example those artists and athletes set is too potent, too severe, and finally out of our reach. What if, instead, you could find just an hour a day for the thing you love to do? That would be about thirty hours a month. That’s the same as nine full-time forty-hour work weeks a year, doing something you love. While an hour a day won’t make me into an Olympic athlete or a concert pianist, each of us could accomplish something pretty special with that much time. Learn the blues guitar? Teach someone how to read? Take up aikido? Write a small book? I’ll be curious to hear what you decide to do.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired February 22, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.