...comes with occasional criticism.
I’ve been meaning to write on the wonder that is Michael Phelps and how awesome I think his accomplishment is. His drug screens are clean and he’s clearly an athlete who has worked for what he has achieved. At least I think so, and in his sport steroids would work against him.
But the Olympics quickly passed and I was pre-occupied with the movie quote meme (which I LOVED) and he wasn’t relevant to write about anymore. And then I read the newspaper’s editorial section…
I love letters to the editor sometimes. Some of the best crackpots write letters to the editor with such lovely flawed logic that it’s funnier than the comic section sometimes. Some of these folks need muzzles in my opinion, but freedom of speech prevails in this country (for the time being) and they’re entitled to their say as well.
There was this letter from this guy who said that it was time to put Phelps’ success into perspective. He said that Phelps just swam the same race 8 times and that all those gold medals were essentially a “glorification of a feeble performance” and that it’s just delusion and greed of the human condition. Why? Because we are not built to jump, run or swim. Seriously, this is what the guy said. And if we want to watch real true excellence in those same things just turn on the Nature channel (like he does) and watch the animals that still walk this earth. I’d quote the whole thing (it’s short) but I really don’t want to invite that kind of trouble, especially considering what I’m about to say.
I want to know what this guy who says that humans aren’t built to do these wondrous physical abilities does that passes for physical ability. I want to know if he’s ever attempted, outside of grade school, to run a mile or swim 10 laps. I want to know what he weighs and what physical shape he’s in. If he really believes that people aren’t meant to do these things and simply prefers watching them on television, I’ll lay bets that he’s a large and flabby man who sits around the house and never enjoys the outdoors. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s someone who is in excellent shape who just couldn’t make the grade for a pro career and is bitter about it now. But I doubt it. If my Google search is right he's an AP English teacher at an affluent middle school and is rather soft around the middle. And who has written quite a few letters to various editorial outlets around the country.
I have great appreciation for the athletes who work really hard to get where they are and I’m not just talking about Olympians. I’m talking about people who decide on a goal for whatever reason and then work hard until they get it. I know people who have decided to lose weight and run a marathon, do a couple of century rides, or even a triathlon. I have to admire that because it takes serious dedication to get there. I know what that’s like – I took up the goal to run again. I know I wanted to make 5 miles by this time of year, but I couldn’t do it with work and other things coming into play. I’ll make those 5 miles on the treadmill eventually. Right now I’m solidly at 1 mile and I’m happy with that. But this isn’t about me and my goals; it’s about everyone who ever had a physical or sport related goal. Any athlete.
I watched a lot of the Olympics and I still have a few hours left to roll through. Doesn’t matter that I know who won the medal – I want to see the performance that earned it. I want to watch and admire the technique they employed, the skill and hard work. I want to show my daughters what hard work can result in (they’ve been loving it). I loved watching Michael Phelps every night swimming in his qualifying heats and finals, watching him break world and Olympic records one by one as he chased Mark Spitz’ achievement. I saw him work on those swims as if it came naturally to him – and it probably did, along with a bunch of hard work.
But what really gets me is the stupidity of the statement about swimming, jumping and running not being what we were built to do. We walk – we’re built to walk. So accelerated walking equals running. We may not be on four paws or are as fast as a jaguar, but we can run. If we couldn’t do that, or jump and swim, we probably would not have survived as long as we did. We evolved intelligently and technically to the point where people like the author of the letter can make stupid statements that humans weren’t built to do what little kids do on the playground all the time – what he may have done on the playground himself when he was a child.
And there's a real irony. This is someone who teaches children, and teaches AP courses. Someone who could make a difference who personally believes that we're not meant to some of the amazing and unbelievable things that individuals from all around the world just did in Beijing for all the world to see. Thank goodness he's not a PE teacher - he'd probably have everyone just marching in lines or sitting and watching the Nature channel.
OK, that's not fair because I don't know for sure that this is the same guy. But it makes me mad because I dealt with this exact same viewpoint in high school from a fellow student. Someone who believed that athletes were wasting their time and whose senior quote in the yearbook was from James Lowell: "In the scale of the destinies, brawn will never weigh so much as brain." And once he found out that not only was I friends with a great many of the athletes and one myself (running) he let true contempt spew forth. Never mind the fact that I was an intellectual equal - athletes let their brains atrophy he opined, and therefore I would no longer be an equal. People weren't meant to jump around he believed - they were built to think and further the civilization.
Funny, I thought furthering the civilization also meant procreation and there's a primal urge in some to pick the best hunter, best runner and brawniest guy to continue the species with. But I digress.
It's all the same when it washes out - there are going to be people who push themselves to do better in a sport and others who will push themselves to do better academically. Some have aptitude in an area that others will not. But that doesn't make it all right to start painting targets on what people are calling the greatest Olympian of our generation. Phelps worked hard for those medals and he earned them by body lengths and by fingernails. And he's going to continue to work hard for them after taking a long break and figuring out how to eat like a normal person (because 12,000 calories a day without the intense training will not sit well in 6 months).
It's just sad that someone believes that we're not meant to do some of the basic things that kids do on the playground every day. I'm going to remember this closed minded thinking, and I will cheer every time I watch my daughters compete in cross country and track (where one is a long and triple jumper). I see incredible runners and jumpers at those events and I'd like anyone to try and convince me that they weren't meant to do those things that they so love to do.