FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 02/23/2010

What’s a Gold Medal Worth?

February 24, 2010                               Volume 3 Issue 4
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Mark Gedney

Everybody wanted to be Mark Spitz in the summer of 1972. As Labor Day approached, my friends and I raced across the Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee trying to claim our own Olympic glory. It was a great introduction to Olympic inspiration.
Next came Austrian Franz Klammer, who skied with abandon and became my first winter Olympic hero. Then the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid during my senior year (1980) had us lacing up our skates.
The Olympics up to that point were only positive for me. But that changed when the United States and 63 other countries boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980. I became increasingly aware of the Olympics’ darker side: Hitler’s Games and the massacre in Munich the same time I was pretending to be Spitz. And for the last 30 years, my clearest memories of the Games have become the steroid popping, pseudo-amateur athletes or the end of amateurism itself—not Olympic glory.
So I wondered if it was worth paying attention to Vancouver. My two sons have been largely indifferent, interested more in their posters of Tom Brady or Dustin Pedroia, and probably unable to name any competing athlete. Maybe they have a more realistic understanding of what a gold medal is worth: endorsements, celebrity, and perhaps bragging rights when they visit their European cousins.
Still, in the run-up to Vancouver, I wondered what to make of the claim of Pindar, the great poet of the ancient Greek games (who was recited at the 1984 Summer Olympics closing ceremony): “Creatures of a day! Man is merely a shadow’s dream. But when the god-given glory comes upon him in victory, a bright light shines upon us, and our life is sweet” (Victory Ode to Aristomenes).

For the 19th century champions of the modern revival of the Games (most famously the Baron de Coubertin), the ancient glory that had been lost was an appreciation of the importance of action in a world increasingly dominated by technology and cold, disengaged rationalism. A strong body and a passionate (fiery) spirit (mens fervida incorpore lacertoso) was Courbertin’s motto. The value of a gold medal was measured not only in renewed physical vitality but in renewed vigor of mind and spirit.
Today’s athletes might enjoy physical prowess, but I think our current malaise concerning the Games can be traced to the ubiquity of amazing athletic feats in sports coverage. Every night we can tune in to ESPN for the “Top Ten” plays of the day and search the Web in case we missed one.
If we are to capture a new sense of Olympic glory, I doubt it will come from simply going faster or looking better than the last winner. Yes, the current crop of athletes will be better than the last and records will fall, but when we equate the value of Olympic medals with the sheer physical prowess of the moment, we, too, have lost something.
Maybe we’re too busy to enjoy the particular integration of spirit and body that leads to excellence. Such integrity, though, is what we see on display in each competition, not just on the medal platform. We can appreciate every athlete, win or lose, who pushes herself to the limit. With each race, and not just the finish line, we see all the possibilities of the human spirit: courage, perseverance, wisdom, honesty.
These are evident in everyday sporting events, but with the dominance of professional sports, our gaze is too often drawn to the top, classifying everyone else as losers. Despite the blurring of the amateur designation in the Olympics, it still represents a different possibility. Rather than ignoring or treating with disdain those who finish out of the top tier, we still enjoy the last and the least from countries far and wide, not because they are first but because they, too, show the glory of the human struggle.
It is this spirit of perseverance and self-transcendence that we can recognize in all athletes, and it is this shared experience that creates a unique camaraderie between athletes when the Games are at their best.
The gold medal, then, represents not only being first but the desire to integrate spirit and body to its highest degree. Understood as this symbol, it is no longer the possession of one person; it is the possession of all who raced and strove for excellence. And it’s shared by all who appreciate, as Pindar said, “the test of any person is in action”—even if that test is taken when you’re only nine and racing your best friends on a late summer day.

Dr. Mark Gedney is associate professor of philosophy at Gordon College. He and family live in Gloucester, MA.


Mark Gedney