The Olympians

Insofar as competition is the measure of oneself against another, it entails the view that the other is more important than oneself. Otherwise, it would be sufficient to measure oneself against oneself (a past self, a hoped-for future self) or against some absolute standard not necessarily related to any self. Such an other-regarding view usually indicates low self-esteem.

It does no good to claim that one competes, rather, to better one’s own best: it must be asked why one needs to perform alongside another in order to better oneself – a stopwatch or tape measure or videotape should suffice. That such competing against oneself is insufficient to bring out one’s best suggests, again, that what matters is what the other does, thinks, etc.

This seems odd, though: most world class athletes have such self-discipline and have achieved such a level of excellence that for their self-esteem to remain low, they’d have to be quite out of touch with reality. Bingo.

The hierarchal nature of competitive sport is such that the context for comparison keeps getting narrower: as one excels, one compares oneself to a smaller and smaller pool of others who also excel; and the measure of difference becomes equally smaller and smaller. So unless the competitor keeps in mind the larger left-behind contexts, or the similarities of amazing achievement, one’s self-esteem ends up depending on a mere ten or twenty out of six billion people, and a mere two seconds in a four-minute race or a few hundredths of a point out of ten.

I don’t mean to suggest, however, that this display of low self-esteem is all there is to competition. Surely there is much more, especially when the competition is as big as the Olympics: a chance for businesses to advertise unnecessary or exploitive products, a chance for petty nationalism to strut its stuff, a chance to misspend resources (surely clean water matters more than whether A can jump 1 cm higher than B), etc.

Nor do I mean to suggest that I won’t be watching the Olympics. I fully applaud the pursuit and display of excellence – but why doesn’t sport, like art, have non-competitive events? True, the arts also have their dance competitions and their music competitions; but more common are simply the performances – the pure celebrations of excellence.


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