The 22 teams who competed in the Rotary dodgeball tournament a week and a half ago get it. So does Ashton Eaton who won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon. Usain Bolt does not. Neither does NBC.
Here’s what I mean. The dodgeball tourney made the front page of the Review last Wednesday in the form of a picture, but as I read through that issue I could not find out who won the competition. What I did see was a picture of some members of the Forest Park Fire Department team congratulating the team they had just “defeated.”
Was the Review remiss in not reporting who came in first and who came in last? But, you say, who won wasn’t the point. The point of the competition was to raise money for charity, not to determine who’s the best dodgeball player in the world — or in Forest Park for that matter. Egos were not on the line.
But there was competition. Teams were trying to win. Swimming laps at the Forest Park Aquatic Center is boring. I do it to stay healthy, but it takes discipline to go back and forth, back and forth, especially when I’m tired to begin with. But if the person in the lane next to me is about my age and close to my ability, without her knowing it, I will push myself to get ahead of her. The competition just makes the exercise more fun.
Usain Bolt and Ashton Eaton both won Olympic gold medals Thursday evening in Brazil, and both were referred to, with apologies to Lebron James, as the greatest athlete in the world by different commentators. How the two responded to their achievements, however, was as different as table tennis and shot-putting.
Bolt walked a victory lap, basking in the adoration of fans, calling attention to himself, saying in effect, “Look how special I am.” In contrast, Eaton embraced all of the athletes against whom he was competing and then jumped into the stands to hug his wife.
David Brooks in The Road to Character writes that he has observed “a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self-effacement that says ‘nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else’ to a culture of self-promotion that says ‘recognize my accomplishments; I’m special.'”
The shift, he says, is away from “people who possess an impressive inner cohesion. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.
“We’ve seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me.”
Bolt’s behavior, to me, was an example of the Big Me attitude. The way Eaton responded was an example of the culture of humility. Eaton was competing against the other participants in the decathlon, yet they behaved like they were also on the same team. It sounds like a contradiction, but the way they embraced after the final race revealed enormous respect for each other, a humility which acknowledged that on another day someone else might come out the winner. It also demonstrated the bond that arises when people go through something intense together. In one sense, they didn’t take their victory personally. They did not look at winning or losing as a comment on their worth as human beings.
The dodgeball tournament should make Brooks feel that all is not lost. The Forest Park Rotary Club got the balance just right. They understand that competition is part of what draws people to participate in sports, but at the same time the point of the event was to raise money to help people who need help. The dodge balls were inflated but not the egos of the participants who won.
What if NBC did not count medals? What if Bob Costas interviewed a sprinter from Panama who came in seventh in the 200 meter run but ran a personal best? What if the director in the booth decided that devoting more coverage to Bolt’s prancing around the track wasn’t worth anyone’s time?
Donald Trump’s campaign theme is “Make America Great Again.” By “great,” I think he means “richer and stronger than everyone else,” like the picture of Muhammad Ali taunting Sonny Liston, whom he had just, in his words, “whupped.” To me, what happened on the soccer field at The Park during the dodgeball tournament did more to make America great than winning a gazillion medals at the Olympics.