Olympic Glory: No Game, No Gain

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For the last few weeks the world has experienced “Olympic fever.”  Every two years, we collectively turn our attention to sports that the rest of the time we ignore.   I’m guessing that come November very few of us will be checking the international standings to see who’s the top ranked discus thrower or watching YouTube clips of race walkers in action.

Our interest in the Olympics is about national pride.  But I think it’s more than that.  I think we have an inherent fascination with the athletes themselves.  We are drawn to the nobility of their personal struggle, their competitive fire, their total sacrifice of body, mind, and spirit.  An Olympian works for years, decades in some cases, for a Moment of Glory.  For those lucky few who get the Gold, they know that when the whole world was watching, they were THE BEST.

Honestly, I love these elite athletes; to have that kind of focus amazes me.  Training every day takes a special mental energy; the ability to repetitively engage in one area of mastery is at their essential skill.  Many of us fantasize about Olympic success, but few of us can relate to those who sacrifice everything to finish first.

During Olympic season, we put the champions on a pedestal… literally.  And for good reasons.  Michael Phelps, Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles…their performances are astonishing.  They deserve applause.  But what comes next for them?  Phelps is riding off into the sunset with a record number of medals.  He will eventually slide into the banquet speaking circuit and he will always be recognizable, but I doubt he’ll ever experience the kind of adoration he’s enjoyed through swimming.

We started the morning looking at Jesse Owens’ accomplishments in the 1936 Olympics.  When we think of famous Olympians, he’s the gold standard, pardon the pun.  But did you know that when he returned home after the ‘36 games, Owens stumbled in his transition to the real world?  In an era of racial prejudice, he was reduced to athletic stunts, like racing horses, to pay bills.  He struggled financially, declared bankruptcy, and worked for a while as a gas station attendant.

A quick search on the Web reveals countless sad stories of former Olympians, disgraced by legal troubles, addiction, or embarrassing attempts to remain relevant.

Rulon Gardner, the Greco-Roman wrestler who dominated at the 2000 Sydney Games, retired from his sport, plunged into depression and gained over 200 pounds. You may have seen him on The Biggest Loser, a show that he abruptly walked away from in the middle of shooting.

Judo champion and Taraje Murray-Williams, two-time U.S. Olympian, coined the acronym P.O.S.D. — Post-Olympic Stress Disorder, to describe what he calls the “sickeningly mundane” nature of his life after returning to civilian life.

Greg Louganis, widely considered to be the best diver in history, struggled to find his place in the world after retiring in 1988, and has battled depression for years.  He attempted suicide on several occasions.

Figure skater Debi Thomas, who competed in the ‘88 Games, is out of work and living in a bug-infested trailer with a man who has a history of domestic violence, some of it directed at her.  She was quoted as saying she didn’t have enough money to pay her phone bill. She is a former surgeon & Stanford graduate, but somehow can’t make ends meet. She started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to get out of poverty.  Due to her living conditions, she lost custody of her son and has been divorced twice.

These sad stories of bankruptcy, substance abuse and depression are commonplace among retired Olympians, and the cause isn’t that hard to find.   When your identify is tied to performance, and your performance hits its pinnacle when you’re a young adult, it’s no wonder that the fall can be swift and steep.   Ski racer Dianne Roff, who won Gold in the ‘96 Lillehammer Games, shared the frustration of “peaking” at age 26.  “It was like being taken up to the highest mountain to see the view, and then being brought down, never to be there again. (After the Olympics) I really struggled.  I missed being exceptional at something.”

But this condition isn’t unique to Olympians, is it?  Maybe we aren’t pursuing medals or world records.  But the collective condition of most Americans is that our worth is defined by our performance.  Maybe for you it was grades rather than sports.  Have any of you felt that burning desire to “come in first” in the GPA competition?  I think Valedictorian just might be Latin for Gold Medalist.

Or maybe it’s not a balance beam that you compete on — it’s a balance sheet.  Accumulation of personal wealth.  Business success.   Setting a new sales record can be just as thrilling as setting a world record.  Coming in first is seductive.  Andrew Carnegie said it this way:  “The first man gets the oyster; the second man gets the shell.”

I have to admit my own battle in this area. I love the attention that comes with being on this stage.  If fear of public speaking is the most commonly held phobia, what’s wrong with me that I can’t wait to get up here?  In my heart, I know I’m on a mission, doing what I’m uniquely created to do, but if I’m not careful, I can quickly slip into performance mode and start looking for that jolt, that adrenaline rush, that ego boost.

Is there a way to redeem our innate desire to compete, to perform, to accumulate?  If he who dies with the most toys still dies, what is the point of it all?

We all know the pinnacle of each Olympian’s experience isn’t crossing the finish line or seeing the judge’s score, it’s the medal ceremony.  We’ve witnessed the scene a hundred times, but it’s always emotional. With great dignity, the medals are draped over the neck of the champions, they’re given a beautiful bouquet of flowers.  They stand at attention and the flags are raised.  The orchestra swells, and the national anthem plays.  The competitor’s eyes well up with tears.  That’s the moment — that’s the dopamine hit that these athletes are desperate to reclaim.

Well, what if I were to tell you that I know a way that any of us, normal folks and Olympians alike, can experience a medal ceremony that will blow that one away.

So today on Click Bait, we’ll see how this genius life hack can bring us incredible, sustainable, eternal wealth…

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