There are some Olympic athletes who ply their will against an omnipresent adversary, gravity. They are the jumpers, the lifters, the throwers/putters, and the gymnasts. They work with physical mass. Though we know of gravity's inevitable victory, with every leap and lift, they express our secret hope to overcome our own earthbound limitations.
Other athletes contend with water, since human bodies are not optimized for an unstable, aqueous world. While the swimmer's movements may be smooth and "fluid," people have neither fins to stay afloat or generate speed, nor gills to deal with going under.
Then there are the athletes whose resistance comes from the air. They run or pedal down tracks at speeds very few of us experience under our own power. Their bodies push away great swaths of air, invisible, but a factor when the measure of time is cut this fine. We are left mostly to imagine it, for the wind's resistance is reserved for those who challenge the wind.
Earth, water, air … as we ascend the hierarchy of the elements as conceived by the ancient Greeks, we realize that there are no "firefighting" events in the Olympics. Yet, the symbol for the Olympics is a flame. We are told this flame represents the "Olympic spirit," a spirit that burns strongest in the heart of the Olympic athlete. It is a flame stoked by years of dedicated training, by desire, by imagination, by mental toughness, and also, ideally, by a host of traits that fall under the rubric of "sportsmanship."
The modern Olympics have many events the ancient Greeks would not recognize. But there is at least one more basic category that is found in antiquity. There are also athletes who pit their will directly against other athletes. In the past, they were the wrestlers. Now we add other styles of fighting, including boxing, judo, and tae kwon do. If every athlete carries the Olympic flame, then any athlete who contends directly with another athlete contends with fire.
How are we to reconcile the Olympic spirit with two athletes trying to throw, pin, or pummel one another into defeat? Well, compete comes from the Latin root meaning "to strive together." Maybe the contest is just the excuse. On another level, these athletes are working together, making friction to start their own flames burning bright.
In this sense, all competition is self-competition, rising to one's highest and best. When the athletes are well matched and performing at their highest level, even the "loser" can feel triumphant. If not, then more than a contest has been lost.
So why should we be so interested in watching other people rise to their highest and best? One easy answer is for the lessons and inspiration exemplars provide.
It is a cliché to say that sport is a metaphor for life. But it is. We do recognize our own life patterns, paradigms, and dilemmas in the dramatic situations of sports.
Any of us, in our daily lives, have our burdens to carry, can run out of wind, must race against the clock, often struggle just to stay afloat, must sometimes reach deep within ourselves to call upon untapped reserves, and must even sometimes make crucial, split-second life decisions, often with greater consequences than missing a medal. Maybe the athletes have it easier, with the support of a nation and the luxury of concentrating mostly on one thing. Our exemplars from this group might have to be the decathletes.
The Olympics are like the rest of life. Both can be a struggle. The value of a struggle is in what it requires us to call up from within ourselves, an opportunity for growth. The one big difference is that the Olympic athletes always know they are in a struggle, whereas modern life is often built around a denial and concealment of that fact. As we pursue pleasure and avoid pain, potential struggles come and go unnoticed, and with them, so many opportunities.
One of the luminaries of the civilization that first gave us the Olympics knew better. Plato's words make a fitting summation of the Olympic spirit: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." The message for us today is blunt: Do we remain comfortably asleep, or are we struggling to awake to the truth that life calls for a heroic response worthy of an Olympian? It is a demand we often neglect or resist, but every four years we are reminded with this opportunity to see anew, aided by the light of an Olympic flame.