Wanted: A Few Olympic Role Models


Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

Photo: Gary Bembridge/Wikimedia Commons

Like the rest of the world, I’ve been obsessed with the Olympics these past two weeks. I’m a sucker for stories of human will and triumph, and the London Summer Games, like all Games, don’t disappoint. Sure, the time-delay sucks and you have to all but bury yourself in a cave all day to avoid the spoiler reports trickling in from London, NBC’s coverage is too U.S.-centric, the gymnastics announcers are cattier than ever, beach volleyball’s getting too much airtime, and Bob Costas needs a good tan, etc. But despite the usual host of complaints (grousing about the Olympics should be its own sport), there’s still so much to inspire.

On the most obvious level, the parade of crazy-fit human physiques is enough to make anyone want to spend every waking minute of the rest of their lives working out. In primetime alone, you can marvel at the wiry, tiny teen gymnasts with sculpted glutes; the male swimmers with their broad, built shoulders and six-pack abs; and the track stars—so many different bodies! Just look at the gazelle legs of sprinter Allyson Felix; the bird-like limbs of British distance runner Mo Farah; and the powerful, regal posture of gold-medal high-jumper Jenn Suhr.

Gawking is a good thing, when you consider the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s dismal stats that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030 (not coincidentally, two of NBC’s biggest Olympic sponsors are McDonald's and Coke). But it’s baffling, too. How can a nation that reveres athletes still be so fat? Maybe we revere them because we are so fat. As a society, we let ourselves off the hook, idolizing pro athletes without expecting very much of ourselves. Olympians live in a different category, but they shouldn’t have to. As most any of them will tell you, excellence is as much about hard work and discipline as it is about pure natural talent.

Age doesn’t have to be an inhibitor, either. Fifteen-year old swimmer Katie Ledecky, barely a sophomore in high school, won gold in the 800m against seasoned 20-somethings. On Monday, 34-year-old Dominican Felix Sanchez crushed the 400-meter hurdles, the oldest competitor to ever medal in that event. Grey-haired Bulgarian gymnast Jordan Jovtchev was killing it on the rings, in his sixth Olympic Games, until he accidentally sat down on his dismount. No matter: The guy single handedly did more to develop and promote Bulgarian gymnastics than anyone else in his country.

Which brings up a bigger point: Olympic influence has the power to go beyond sport, and the purely physical, but so often it doesn’t. Athletes have the ability and exposure to influence millions of people, including the most impressionable among us: kids. How hard would it have been for Michael Phelps, in his last post-race interview poolside, surrounded by the chlorinated Dream Team spouting adulation for his 19 medals, to say something about something other than himself, or swimming? A writer friend of mine, a former school teacher and long time Zen practitioner, put it this way: “If he could have just slipped in something like, ‘math’s great!’ think what an effect he could have! We are the best in the world in athletics, but we’re terrible at math.” (Thirty-first in the world, at last count.) Instead, Phelps told one announcer that now he’d have more time for golf.

Talk about a missed opportunity. All the conversation about Phelps concerns his title as world’s greatest Olympic athlete: Does he deserve it, did he see it coming, and will anyone ever match his feat? Setting a goal and meeting it—especially one as exceptional as his—is laudable for sure. And so is his other passion: getting more kids moving and into the pool. But there’s so much more he might do with his fame.

Imagine how different things might be if athletes—American athletes, especially—were coached to see sport as transformative for all people—not just for the self, event, team, or even country. “It’s in these moments that we realize we are all one!” said an NBC commentator after Grenada’s medal favorite Kirani James swapped bibs with disabled runner Oscar Pistorius after the latter failed to advance to the 400m finals. If this same sentiment were to come from the athletes themselves—if they were trained in media awareness and global altruism, like they're trained for strength, speed, and endurance—rather than the breathless, overwrought announcers, just think what might be possible.

“Phelps will be gone but not forgotten. He inspired a generation, and more than all his medals, that is his greatest legacy,” wrote Karen Crouse in The New York Times on Sunday. Hats off to Phelps, but how about we make that future tense? Phelps’ and his fellow Olympians’ influence and responsibility doesn’t need to end here. Athletes, your audience is rapt. For our kids’ sake, let’s hope this is only the beginning.

 —Katie Arnold