Please don’t call me an Olympian.
I am a person who has participated in the Olympics.
Please don’t call me a cancer survivor.
I am a person who has survived cancer twice.
Please don’t call me a person with bipolar disorder.
I’m a manic depressive stay at home dad-husband-author in PTSD near-depression from watching the Olympics, because I still don’t know who I am, twelve years after I marched as “runner-up flag bearer” immediately behind the flag which led the contingent of the 2004 US Olympic Team into Opening Ceremonies in Athens.
I have one, and only one regret in life: I was too ashamed of my 11th-place result to sit with my family at the medal ceremony. One place better than smack-dab in the middle of the twenty-five men competing in the Finn class of sailing.
You’d think that 12 years later, after therapy, manic breakdowns, depressions, world championship victories, and starting a family, that I’d be able to move on. I haven’t. I thought I had until this Olympics started two weeks ago. I’ve been a complete wreck. This is rather embarrassing. I blame it on the Achievement Model of self-worth.
The best way I know how to illustrate it is the awkward silence after I tell people that I was eleventh at the Olympics when they ask how I did. It’s very similar to the one I sometimes get when I say I’m just out of the mental hospital. It’s deafening. As if both were what my sons call an “epic fail.”
There’s an excellent article in the Atlantic titled The Dark Side of Going for Gold: After the Olympics, both Winners and Losers are Prone to Emotional Crashes.
The article talks about coming back down from Mount Olympus to ordinary life. It’s a big change of pace and purpose. Some athletes handle it OK, and some athletes really struggle. Some even become life-threateningly depressed. One interesting thing to note is that chafe around the neck from all the gold medals doesn’t necessarily prevent this depression. And that’s where the real insight is to be found.
I entered a vortex at age five in which I remain at age forty-six. The force holding me together my whole life has been my Achievements.
The Achievement Model says that Good Results = (identity, praise, and self-worth). Of course, this means that Failure = (questioning of identity, ignominy, and self-loathing).
The Olympians who didn’t win medals in Rio are likely to be reminded by their friends and family over the next few weeks of Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic Creed:
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
My experience is that those words simply made me ashamed of my shameful feelings about my result.
(Please, count the number of interviews with non-gold-medalists over the next few weeks, and let me know if Monsieur C’s ditty rings a little hollow in today’s NBC-our-athletes-are-commodities environment…)
If the Olympic Creed doesn’t do enough heavy lifting for people, there’s always Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I like this one better than Coubertin’s, but for me, it still presents a problem. We only assign people the place of daring greatly when we can conceptualize the opponent, see the struggles, and imagine ourselves facing them. Or choosing not to.
The silent struggle to find purpose and meaning which bypass or transcend Achievement is perhaps the loftiest of all.
Maybe the fact that it is so woo-woo and unsung will make it all the sweeter one day, though I’m not yet sure how.
Until then, I have to survive.
I am not a cold and timid soul, even if I never step into another arena.