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Learning the tough lessons from the Olympics

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on August 9, 2012 at 4:35 PM

As we have seen over the past two weeks, the glorious triumphs of Olympic medal winners can provide us with abundant motivation to keep working toward our own goals. We can fuel ourselves with inspiration from the magnitude of their performances and cry tears of joy with them as they stand on the podium.

But the vast majority of Olympic competitors will never stand on the podium, will not have their names etched in the record books, and will travel back home with little to show for their years of preparation. These athletes are also mentors for us - perhaps even more appropriate mentors than the champions - because they can teach us how to survive the tough lessons of loss and disappointment.

From the 2012 Olympics here are some of the images I will never forget of loss and the lessons it teaches:  

  • Get back up again after you fall. US gymnast Jordyn Wieber was devastated after failing to qualify for the individual all-around competition that she was favored to win. But she overcame that huge loss and rallied to help her team win a gold medal. We have to keep trying and not give up, even when disaster strikes. 
  • Finish the race. Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, a former champion, crashed into the first hurdle of his race and was unable to continue running. But he hopped to the finish line on one leg, stopping to kiss the last hurdle on the way. It takes enormous courage to finish what we start, but that is what we are called to do, even when everything goes wrong. 
  • Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Oscar Pistorius, the runner from South Africa who lost both of his lower legs at the age of 11 months and runs on prosthetic limbs, finished last in his semifinal heat, failing to qualify for the finals. While this man has had good reason to complain about the circumstances given him by life, he has expressed only gratitude and determination to do his best. We should also be grateful for the opportunities we have been given rather than complain about our difficulties. 
  • See the higher purpose. Saudi Arabian runner Sarah Attar, who was clothed from head-to-toe in baggy workout wear as required by her culture, finished her race last, more that 30 seconds slower than her nearest competitor. But she understood the importance of the moment as Saudi Arabia’s first woman athlete to compete in the Olympics and expressed how honored she was to have that opportunity. Sometimes we are not called to win but to create new pathways through our losses. 
  • Celebrate your competitors. As Missy Franklin broke yet another record in the pool, the swimmers who lost to her each offered her genuine hugs of congratulation, even though they had just engaged in fierce competition against her. This is an image we see repeated over and over again in every sport from countless athletes: genuine joy for the accomplishments of another person even after experiencing humiliating defeat. We must remember to put aside our own pain in order to celebrate the joy of others.

As these 2012 Olympics draw to a close let us keep alive the memories of all those who came to compete and were willing to risk losing in the effort. There could be no champions without worthy competitors willing to battle them and suffer a loss in the process. We should be honored to be called to such a path.

Categories: Current Events, Sports, Spiritual Practice

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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