Perhaps the greatest thing about the Olympics is that it’s one of the few areas left where our society not only values individual achievement, but celebrates it unapologetically. During the Rio Olympics, our nation has marveled at athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles crushing the competition, as we should. Their achievements and abilities are remarkable. Not only is no one lamenting that there is “athlete inequality”, or that Phelps has more than his fair share of medals, our society is enthusiastic in its celebration of this inequality.
Furthermore, the media is actually acknowledging what it takes to achieve this greatness. NBC showed a piece on Phelps overcoming his substance abuse issues and rededicating himself to swimming, and we saw clips of Simone Biles spending long hours at the gym, explaining how she’s had to miss teenage enjoyments like Homecoming and Prom dances in her pursuit of Olympic medals. Despite their natural abilities and “athletic privilege”, there is little resentment of their accomplishments. No one is suggesting that Phelps have an anchor tied to him, or that those from less swimming-privileged countries be given a head start. Only that others rise to his level.
Consequently, the quality and performance of almost every Olympic sport increases each generation. Even the losers of today are faster than the champions of just a few decades ago. Mark Spitz was an Olympic legend, winning 7 gold medals in the 1972 games at Munich. His world record setting time in the 200 meter freestyle that year was 1:52.78. The slowest finisher of the 200 meter finals in Rio swam the same distance in 1:45.91! Mary Lou Retton, the legendary American gymnast who received two perfect scores in 1984, would likely not even qualify for the team today. It seems that a system that celebrates individual achievement and rightly allows inequality to occur, translates into even the more ordinary achieving remarkable things.
Yet, this seems to be an anomaly in our culture, seldom translating past the sports stadium. In politics, the 1% are routinely loathed and targeted for not “paying their fair share”. Success in business is often thought of coming at the expense, or exploitation of others, and the “you didn’t build that” sentiment is perpetuated by even the president. In education, individual achievements are often blamed, or linked to race or “privilege”. Instead of looking to emulate traditionally successful groups like Asians or Jews, many institutions are concerned with diversity instead. Harvard might refuse an Asian student for a less qualified one of a different racial background. A fire department might give certain groups preference to ensure they “represent the community”. Imagine these policies at play in the Olympic swimming pool?!
Even the Olympic medalists aren’t immune from this, and will see their achievements knocked down on their return home. The Olympic Commission awards $25,000 to each gold medalist, in addition to lucrative endorsement deals they may receive. This is the direct result of their hard work, dedication and pursuit of achievement, yet they will be told it’s not theirs by the IRS. That somehow other people, or the state, have claim to their earnings. Give us half, or go to jail. Somehow the celebration of individuals doesn’t translate into our government. This is a result of a moral and political philosophy that so many in the culture hold, that views individual rights inferior to the collective, or state. An ideology just as immoral as tying an anchor to Michael Phelps. At least once every four years we can forget about it for a moment.