PORTLAND, ORE. — Every time the summer Olympics return to the headlines, I'm grateful that athletic fame never loomed as a possibility in my life. No worries for me about unfulfilled potential. I sympathize with all competitors everywhere who possess superior abilities but fall short of world-class achievements. Many of them must do a lot of second-guessing as time goes by, wondering if there was some extra step in their training that might have propelled them to a faster, higher, or stronger performance.
My track and field career started slow and then tapered off. Running was never enjoyable, so in ninth grade in Palo Alto, Calif., I settled on the shotput and discus as the tickets to stardom. By the end of high school, other throwers had these implements soaring skyward as if rocket powered. But gravity always seemed to exert a tremendous downward force on any object I was trying to launch.
I switched to the javelin in college, with no change in results. My coach displayed heroic patience, and after two lackluster years he suggested trying the hammer throw. Spinning around with an iron ball on a chain is exhilarating and somewhat scary. For once, I didn't mind failing to excel because flinging that hammer was so much fun.
My career came to an uncertain conclusion in my senior year, at the league championship. On my final toss, rhythm and footwork finally combined in harmony. If I'd been competing in 1896, the distance would have been impressive. In the modern world, it was enough to get fourth place, a personal best.
As I ran out to retrieve the hammer, my coach, bemused, quipped: "Looks like you got lucky on that one."
"Well, I knew I'd put it all together one of these days," I replied cheerily, thinking he meant I'd suddenly overachieved.
"No. I think the judges marked it wrong," he said.
I never spent any time agonizing over the possibility my little plaque was awarded erroneously. Common sense told me it was time to exit the field of dreams and get on to more rewarding pursuits. And during the intervening years, I've come to realize the best contribution I can make to the world of sports is by cheering the contestants from a safe distance. After all, it takes a big audience of spectators to make an athletic event into a spectacle.
And I definitely don't want to go anywhere near the Olympic flame. Those volunteer runners who carry the torch from Greece are inspiring, but I can envision myself tripping on a cracked sidewalk, and watching the hallowed flame disappear down a sewer grate.
I know the real glory of the Olympics comes from simply participating, and that as children we're often lectured on the importance of challenging ourselves. But I think it's equally important that, as adults, we learn to recognize our limitations and not venture recklessly into areas of certain embarrassment.
So let the competition begin. We who are glued to our chairs salute you. And I feel an inward thrill of victory.
If Knowing-When-to-Stay-Out-of-the-Way-and-Let-Other-People-Do-the-Job-Right was an Olympic event, I would surely be a gold-medal winner.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society