Aug 7, 2012
Olympics 2012 Diary: Inspiration
So what would you say has been the most incredible performance in these Olympics? As far as a career culmination, most people would point to Michael Phelps. Usain Bolt's mind-blowing 9.62 in the 100 meters was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Mckayla Maroney's vault in the team finals was jaw-dropping - as evidenced by the classic pictures of the judges doing just that. There were several swimming events that broke records. Kevin Durant rained three pointers on Argentina like it was a pickup game. And Jessica Ennis obliterated the field in the heptathlon. But for me the answer is simple.
Take a minute and look at that picture. It almost looks Photoshopped. It looks like someone was erasing the bottom and accidentally removed the guy's legs. Except it isn't like that at all. This is Oscar Pistorius, sprinter from South Africa. He was born without tibias in his lower legs, so the doctors amputated his legs when he was eleven months old. Now, an inspirational story would be that the child learned to walk on artificial limbs and lived a relatively normal life. That would be an incredible performance. But, Oscar wasn't content with that and neither was his family. Instead, he worked really hard and became a sprinter on his artificial Cheetah blades.
Now, his talent for sprinting is indeed great. He has represented South Africa in the Paralympic Games. And he has routinely destroyed the competition because he is ridiculously fast. This would be an incredible performance. But that wasn't something to be contented with, either. Oscar is fast enough that his top speeds are comparable to the "able-bodied" athletes in the Olympics. So he pursued that goal as well. If someone can qualify for the Olympics and they are following the rules, they should be allowed to compete.
This is where Oscar's story gets strange. He was banned from the Games because the authorities ruled his limbs gave him a competitive advantage. To this day, there are people who say he should not be there because he is using attachments to his body to compete. US track legend, Michael Johnson, is one of the detractors. Now this is where I take pause in this whole story.
My favorite sports columnist, Bill Simmons, has proposed several times that all sports teams and sports ruling bodies should be forced to hire a "VP of Common Sense." This would be a non-sports related individual that had to make a final approval on all trades, roster moves, and rule changes. This would be someone like you and me, someone far enough from the situation to think clearly. A BS detector, if you will. There have been many times in the sports world where a decision was made where we, the fans, have said, "Who came up with that? If I ran my business that way, I would go broke." This is where the VP of Common Sense comes in.
I wish that there had been a VP of Common Sense when this original ruling came down on Pistorius. I mean, even the announcers at the Olympics - who are not generally considered insightful by any stretch of the imagination - just can't get over how ludicrous this entire train of thought is. You know this. I know this. It is nonsense. The man does not have legs. Everyone else does. What possible steps could be taken - short of mounting him on jetpacks, rockets, or actual cheetahs - could ever made THAT equal, let alone give him an advantage? Think about this for just a minute. HE DOESN'T HAVE FEET. I'm not being crass here. I just want that to sink in. Think about all the things you need feet for in your life. True, most of us are stuck in a sitting position for most of the day and could manage just fine without feet. But getting up, walking to find a donut in the break room, standing up to pee, driving. Things get complicated. Average, boring, menial things get complicated. But running at an Olympic speed? In the words of Gus on Psych, "Son, puh-leeze."
I would have overruled them. I would have said, "Think about it, jack wagon. How could you possibly justify this stance?" Even with this setback, Pistorius kept training and challenged their ruling. He got a team of experts to testify in his favor. I read the summaries of the reports by this team. They couldn't even agree with each other about why the ruling was wrong - but they all said it was wrong. One of them said that the artificial legs DID give him an advantage when it came to moving his legs faster because the lack of bones made them lighter, meaning they could go faster. One of them said that the blades gave him a higher rate of return on the leg muscles effort, but a grossly inferior rate of return from the foot itself pushing onto the track. Supposedly a human foot will return over 200 percent of the force pushed down in a race. The blade only returned 90 percent. The final expert - who has artificial legs with robotic elements - said the other guys were all completely daft and none of what they said was true. His report was more along the line of what I have said. "You guys are seriously stupid. Just think for a second what you are saying."
So Pistorius was cleared to compete. He was named to the South African team for the 400 meter sprint and the 4x400 relay. On Saturday, as soon as I woke up, I fired up NBCOlympics.com and watched the replay of his qualifying race. They ran it in the evening as well, with the commentators. It was bizarre. This was really the first that anyone had mentioned Pistorius on the NBC coverage. They were so busy mooning over Phelps and Lochte and Gabby Douglas. The track team of Tom Hammon and Ato Boldin are usually very good. But this time, it was almost like they were condescending. It was like it was a curiosity. "He isn't expected to do much, but it means so much he is even here." Now, the crowd in London didn't quite feel the same. They gave him such a rousing ovation for just standing there, you would have thought he was British. You could tell he was extremely moved at the reality of the race finally happening.
The gun went off and so did Pistorius. The announcers were stunned to see that he wasn't loafing in the back. Instead, he was up near the front. In fact, he finished his heat second, behind eventual silver medalist, Luguelin Santos, in a time of 45.44 seconds. Wrap your mind around that. I am always amazed at how fast the sprinters in the Olympics can run. I swear, Usain Bolt is just a blur of limbs as his lopes down the track. But Oscar Pistorius is not your average sprinter. He shouldn't be able to run that fast. The story took off, and NBC finally got a clue. They ran the pre-Games interview between Mary Carillo and Oscar. He was on the Today Show. There was a lot of build-up to his semifinal race.
I was rooting for him to win. But, he came in eighth. It wats apparent, though, that no one in the stadium thought that was a loss. This included his fellow competitors. In a great picture, the eventual gold medalist, Kirani James of Grenada (who just seems like a really cool guy), came up and wanted to switch name bibs with Pistorius in a show of sportsmanship. You could tell the other guys were deeply respectful. Oscar didn't just show up - he raced and competed and held his own. It was incredible to watch, and my most amazing performance of the Games.
It also got me thinking. Pistorius has had to do so much work to get where he has gotten. He has trained himself daily to get into the shape necessary to be a competitor on any stage. But he also has had to fight in the courts to get the right to compete where he has every right to be - the biggest stage. He has had to listen to people who have held up his biggest disadvantage and dared to say it gave him an unfair advantage. In one way they are right. It isn't the blades that gives him an advantage. It is the commitment to overcome the hand he was dealt. It is the lifetime of struggling and fighting and overcoming that no person with full use of their limbs can ever know. He does have an unfair advantage - but it isn't from science or technology. He had every excuse to NOT do this. Most of us wouldn't excuse someone like Ryan Lochte or Missy Franklin for quitting the pursuit of gold. It is all consuming and exhausting, more than any person should have to go through if they don't want to. So no one in their right mind would blame Pistorius for quitting at any point in the process.
Most of us are content to let greatness pass us by. We aren't committed to see it through. It just becomes too much work. I have loved the Nike ads narrated by Tom Hardy through these Olympics, reminding us that greatness is not something born into people. It is discovered and worked toward. To say it is born diminishes just how great greatness is. Sure, someone like Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin or Lebron James may have the genetic package to succeed in their selected sports. But that doesn't guarantee anything. Just go look on any playground basketball court in New York City and you'll find dozens of players that had the genetic package to make the NBA. But some combination of events and choices led them away.
I struggle with this. I know that I have talents - great talents in some areas. I am not being a braggart by saying that. I have a lifetime of trophies and accolades and awards to back this up. To claim that I don't have talent actually minimizes the gifts that God gave me. But I am so afraid. I can be so lazy. So I just don't follow through. I love writing. It is something that is not an effort for me. My life has happened in such a way that I was prepared to be a writer. The three hardest teachers I ever had were 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English. They honed my skills. But everyone thinks they can be a writer. That is why there are fifty gazillion blogs out there. And it is easy to not follow through on something that I want to do out of fear that I won't succeed, or that I am fooling myself. I have wanted to write a book for so long. This isn't just a dream that I came up with yesterday. I have a folder on my computer with book ideas - complete with thumbnails, chapters, intros. One series I thought up has the floor plan for seven entire books. They are just sitting there.
When I see someone like Oscar Pistorius, the thought that comes is, "So, what's your excuse?" Trust me, I have many. And I usually ignore that question. It is too uncomfortable. I have dozens of reasons why I don't do something. People may not like it. No one will read it. Maybe I'm not actually that good. Maybe I'm actually not that funny. What about money? How will I print it? No publisher will ever buy it. What about time? With all the other stuff I am doing or need to be doing, how will I have time to write something that isn't guaranteed to even be bought or read or anything? The voices of doubt are so loud in my head that I can't even move. It is frustrating. And I have a feeling that I am not alone in those thoughts. I want to move past that fear and paralysis to actually DO something.
I have heard people ask, "What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?" That isn't a great question, I have realized. There is never a guarantee we won't fail. And to only do something if we know we won't fail, well then we don't want to do that thing enough. Pistorius didn't know he wouldn't fail. There was no guarantee ever for him. We need to ask, "What is it you want to do, even if you might fail?' Jumping into something because you believe in it and are committed to it, even if the cards are stacked against you is so much better. That is when greatness happens. That is something Olympic athletes have realized. That is something that Oscar Pistorius lives by. And that is something I hope I can learn too.