The London Olympics kicked off for real Friday night, er Friday morning with a distinctly British yet enjoyable Opening Ceremony. At least, NBC tells us all of that took place Friday, but I’m not entirely sure they can be trusted anymore because of their willingness to manipulate time and space.
No matter, the beginning of the Games got me to thinking about greatness. But I don’t mean human greatness, the kind that Mother Teresa embodied – I think we’ve all heard enough bad things about famous athletes to prevent us from believing that they’re morally superior – or extraordinary charisma, the stuff that leaves us star struck.
I’m talking about ability and drive and accomplishment. Great as in being the best in the world at something, anything.
A talented dude I follow on Twitter, recently wrote that he’s above average at many things, but not great at anything. I feel the exact same way. And that’s not an endorsement. It’s likely that some our lack of distinction boils down to decision and lifestyle. For example, I’m spread thinner than Tayshaun Princeby being a dad, a husband, a journalist, a blogger, an exercise nut, etc. Maybe if I dedicated myself to just one of those disciplines, I could be great at it. Maybe.
But probably not. Because, with all due respect to the marketing geniuses at Nike, true greatness is rare. At least, that’s the way I see it. Potential isn’t great – making good on it is.
I look at these world-class athletes and I wonder what it’s like to be inside their swim caps: What does it feel like to be great? Do you know that you’re great or does it seem normal because you don’t know any other way? Do you process things differently, your brain running on iOS in a Windows world?
My best guess is this: Most extraordinary athletes are born with at least one exceptional quality, be it extra long arms or a relentless drive. That covers nature. Nurture comes into play, as well, in the sense that you need to be discovered or trained or funded in order to attain that level of excellence. No modern Olympian does it alone.
Oh, and they’ve got to want it, want to be the best at what they do to the point that nothing else really matters. (An American synchronized swimmer was interviewed late Sunday night on NBC and said that she’d like to discover a passion for something in her upcoming retirement.) They sort of have to put all of their eggs in one basket in able to be competitive on the international level. It seems potentially more mental than physical, and that’s largely what I’m curious about.
We’ve been told (over and over and over again) that swimming legend Michael Phelps was teased as a kid, and he used that to fuel his desire to achieve. On one hand, that means the barbs hurt and the 17-time medalist is human. On the other hand, he decided to use the pain as motivation AND had/developed the physical tools necessary to hit unprecedented marks on a planet inhabited by 7 billion people.
Yes, these Olympians are just flesh and blood (that may or may not have been spun in Germany). Yet they have found ways to accomplish what seems impossible. To that end, merely daring to dream of breaking established barriers is a uniquely creative, daring or supremely confident concept. And then to be disciplined and/or tough enough to carry out the physical aspect?
That’s what makes the feature stories so fascinating. Every athlete has taken a different road, faced different adversities and had different advantages. But they all arrived at the same point, used their bodies and their minds to do things that make the rest of us marvel. We don’t really care about canoe slalom, but we’ll watch it because we respect greatness … even if we lack some of the parts required to create it for ourselves.