Some of us are just not athletes. But we idolize them. They are celebrities. They suck up an enormous amount of bandwidth, all types of bandwidth…television, the internet, school, you name it. How much of your time is taken up with discussing sports, playing sports, or pretending to like sports?
I also think that athletes have a completely different perspective on things, and their effort to explain themselves is often a complete failure. And when the world tries to explain what they are all about, it turns into celebrity worship and worse. What on earth could possibly drive a person to wreck their physical bodies to the extent that they must wreck them, in order to transcend them?
Too often, our attempt to understand turns into overly simplistic statements about naked aggression and competition. “They do it to win,” we say. “Winning feels good.”
Read The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. It's a book for all ages. It's not hard to read. It's an incredible story, and you have to keep pinching yourself and saying, “This really happened.” It's a suspenseful work of narrative non-fiction, despite the fact that you already know what happens. This boat of nine college men from the University of Washington, many of them poor, working-class guys and not the blue-blooded elite that normally filled boats in the East, went on to snatch Olympic gold right out from under Hitler's nose.
What I think is one of the author's greatest gifts is his ability to explain what happens when an athlete transcends himself. He explains how it happens, and also when it doesn't happen. It's both magical and utterly pragmatic.
Here's a snippet of the author's genius:
It was when he [Joe Rantz, one of the Olympic rowers] tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.
At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing's greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both–it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience–a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.
This is a great summer read, as the Olympic festivities continue.