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Opinion
Education Opinion

The Joy of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

By Susan Graham — August 26, 2008 2 min read

“What a shame, he missed breaking the world record on that one!”

“Well, I just don’t know if it was good enough..she had a balance check after that double back flip and then she took an awfully big step on the landing!”

“Oh man, he missed that rebound? He’s got three inches on that guy!”

As you can surmise, I’ve been spending some of my last lazy summer evenings watching the Olympics. My husband and I lolled in our easy chairs with a chilled beverage in hand and make uninformed judgments on diving and gymnastics. “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat” makes for great entertainment.

But I wonder—What happens to these athletes after the Olympics are over? Because whether a competitor never made it past the first round of eliminations or stood on that center platform with gold while the national anthem played, it’s still over. It was two weeks of entertainment for us, but for the competitors, a lifetime of commitment was invested in a performance that lasted only minutes. So, was it worth it? For Michael Phelps, boy wonder, there will be multimillion dollar endorsement contracts. He earned it. For Kobe Bryant and the rest of the basketball team, there is redemption for the NBA’s tarnished reputation. They were fierce athletes and gracious sportsmen, they made us proud.

And then there are Shawn and Nastia, who held us all breathless with their physical grace and their steely poise under pressure. They made impossibly difficult feats of strength and agility look easy, and they did it on a piece of wood four inches wide and about three and half feet off the ground. At ages sixteen and eighteen, they have won gold medals, the hearts of viewers, and big endorsements so what comes next for these two? Will Shawn start her junior year at Valley High School and will Nastia begin her collegiate experience at Southern Methodist University?

For two weeks we watched, cheered, groaned and, as a country, shared their success and felt their pain. But I wonder about all the athletes all over the world who trained for years and dreamed of gold, but who didn’t make the team. I wonder about all the Olympians who trained for years and carried the responsibility of representing their nation, but never made it past the first round eliminations. I wonder those who were contenders but watched a medal slip away because of a muscle cramp or a torn tendon. What is it like to lose by .001 of a second? How does it feel to come in fourth? What keeps an also ran marathoner going long after the winners have finished?

Part of what makes the Olympics so riveting is the stakes. What are the odds of a little girl in Iowa becoming a world champion and how often does a young man with attention deficit disorder maintain such intense focus and become the “Greatest Olympian”? Unless they are self deceiving, it’s not about the money, because odds of turning a quest for Olympic gold into a pile of cash are not good. Most Olympians will go home with some nice souvenirs, some wonderful memories and the satisfaction of having tried their best.

We talk a lot about high expectations and high stakes in education circles these days. There are few situations that set higher expectations and higher stakes than Olympic competition. So here I am I wondering again:

What if we could harness that kind of energy and motivation toward learning?
What if our culture valued learning as much as winning?
What if we honored perseverance and celebrated “personal best” in learning as well as sports?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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