Of course, sport doesn’t really matter. Sport isn’t life and death. It isn’t war. Yet at the same time, for all the negative focus by the media before the games, the Olympics do matter.
The key to understanding the Olympics is that they only happen every 4 years and in between, nobody really notices. The Olympics demand not only that you produce your best, but that you produce your best right now. If you don’t for whatever reason, you will fail. This means that unlike the soap opera of other sport, the Olympics are where stories are actually defined, once and for all. In other sport there is always tomorrow, in the Olympics there is only today.
So the stakes are the highest in sport and this fills every event with meaning. Whole lives are crystallised in a moment. And from here, a number of things happen.
The first and most obvious is that people give everything to win. This drives a sense that we are exploring the very limits of human possibility. Faster, higher, stronger. As with science, by pushing boundaries we make unexpected discoveries, and inspire new ideas… as well as the next generation.
A byproduct of this is that the Olympics breaks down prejudice. It doesn’t care about race or gender or education, but results. Sport is available to people whose talents lie outside of the classroom and is a tremendous force for diversity. Hitler himself was a wonderful example of someone who tried to control sporting talent, and failed.
But the second effect is that those who do not win must face despair. In fact, far more than they are about success, the Olympics are about failure. The vast majority of competitors fail and it is a unique form of failure. Olympic failure is irrevocable and it comes after having given everything. Athletes have given every last shred of effort, energy, time and endurance for virtually the whole of their lives. Then they fail. Sometimes because of talent, but other times simply because of capricious luck.
And this is key for two reasons. Firstly, when we see someone win we share their joy. But when they lose after having given their all we cannot help but feel their pain (and all the emotions in between – pride, fear, anxiety, relief). And when we do we recognise ourselves. That’s why these aren’t the Peoples’ games – they are the human games, reminding us that we have far more in common than we have difference.
But finally all Olympic athletes must find a way to commit to their goals in the face of likely failure. They must find a way to endure years of pain in the pursuit of these goals. From my perspective this is why the Olympics matter – they are full of people courageous enough to move towards their goals and values in the face of their own doubt and pain.
This is psychological flexibility in action – and it provides an example for us all.