The Physician and Sportsmedicine
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The Real Olympic Story


The Olympic Games seem to generate two kinds of reaction: excitement or cynicism. I think the cynics are missing the point, which is that the Games are a celebration of human capacity and achievement. Why don't they see it that way?

The way most of us view the Olympics is secondhand, through the eyes of the media. Until the Games start, the media focuses on the business side of the Olympics, which has too often been tarnished by borderline ethical behavior. (Even this journal takes an interest in the "political" side: See News Briefs, page 15.) When attention does turn to the athletes and coaches, more than a fair share of sensationalistic stories are devoted to those whose win-at-all-costs attitudes have, in the past, undermined the spirit of the Games. And when the international broadcast of the Olympic Games themselves finally airs, it is less in the form of sports coverage and more akin to a TV miniseries—with preprogrammed vignettes featuring winners or stars.

What is missing, and what might revive the interest of the jaded, is the real story behind the Olympic athletes, especially those who have not, for whatever reason, reached the media spotlight. The real story is the one that the athletes themselves would like to tell if they could.

This story is one of determination, focus, and hard work in the face of uncertainity over many years, as with one athlete I know. I have had the privilege to be a physician to a young distance runner who came to Stanford as a varsity athlete 4 years ago. This fine young man has worked exceptionally hard to achieve balance in his training, competition, school work and projects, and personal relationships. From a young age, running on golf courses in Texas, and for as long as I've known him, he has hoped for a berth on the Olympic team but has constantly faced the reality that his dream might not happen.

On the very day of his event at the Olympic Trials, he developed an injury with sufficient acute pain to threaten his chances of competing. While his concern could hardly be classified as a grave medical illness, its occurrence created acute-on-top-of-chronic uncertainty. In the end, he competed—and successfully made the Olympic team.

Few athletes reach the level of performance necessary to even dream (with some basis in reality) of becoming an Olympic athlete. Even fewer can contest for a spot on the Olympic team. Only a handful make the team, and there are only three "winners" in any event. My patient's story—and that of every athlete who gives his or her all to a sport—is one of hope and determination despite uncertainty. All athletes who try to excel, whether or not they make it, have a special ability to persevere in pursuit of their dreams. Hope sustains them, pushing them toward a goal they can't count on achieving. The real story of the Olympics is the character of those who, despite slim chances, put every effort into preparing to compete.

I believe this story would inspire those with a "ho-hum" response if they could see it. Odds are they won't be given the chance. Yet the athlete's efforts represent a fundamental strength of character to which many of us aspire. Winning brings its rewards, but most of us—having experienced at least as many losses as wins—can identify more with the character needed to endure the struggle than with the outcome itself. Deep down, we know that the value of the attempt is in the journey, not the outcome.

Many people have compared life to athletics. The reason, I believe, is that life's adversities and outcomes parallel those in sport, and the characteristics required to follow each path are also similar. That, I think, is what needs to be said. If the cynics understood that, they'd be in awe, too.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD