Here in Israel, the talk is not of Iran and its Jew-hating leaders and ongoing threat to civilization, but rather of Yakov Tumarkin and Israel’s other Olympic athletes. There was great rejoicing, and the lead story on the news the other night, when Tumarkin became only the second Israeli swimmer (and first in twelve years) to make it to a finals, this in the backstroke. He immediately announced that he does not expect to win, which is in fact refreshing, not to mention accurate (his best time, an Israeli record, is seconds off – but in swimming, light years away – from championship caliber). His candor speaks volumes, as does the celebration of his achievements.
I don’t follow or watch the Olympics. Few of the sports interest me, and there are far better, more enlightening ways to spend one’s time than to watch strangers competing in ultimately meaningless exercises. Add to that the contrived hype about the “Olympic spirit” which says nothing and means even less; the “Olympic spirit” seems to encompass cheating, doping, gloating, and these days the worst political correctness – the rejection of a moment of silence for the slain Israeli athletes of Munich, forty years ago, was attributed to a desire not to “offend” the Arabs, and, as incredible as it sounds, a declaration that such commemorations would have to mention the “Palestinians” who lost their lives that fateful day, i.e., the Palestinian terrorists who were killed while murdering the Jews would have to be mourned along with the Jews they killed. So much for the “Olympic spirit,” which in a Jewish context also involves the rampant Chilul Shabbat that the Games engender. But the news remains the news, and the reaction to Tumarkin’s achievement in Israel is remarkable from an American perspective.
Freed of the expectation of winning, the Israeli athletes can actually enjoy the experience of competing on the world stage with their peers. In America, the losers – even winners of silver medals – receive little acclaim and few endorsements. No second-place finisher finds his/her visage adorning a box of Wheaties, which is after all the breakfast of champions, not also-rans. Thus, young lives are effectively sacrificed for fame and fortune. Athletic children (gymnasts, swimmers, etc.) grow up without normal childhoods. (Even in Israel, “exceptional sportsmen” are exempt from IDF service, or at least have their service postponed for several years while they compete internationally; Haredim, take note, as should anti-Haredim, who apparently value sports more than Torah study.) Most of their dreams are snuffed out, as there can only be one champion. But in Israel, the mere fact that they have made it to that stage suffices for acclaim and approbation.
Thus, the badminton scandal – wherein some Asian teams threw games in order to achieve a better seeding in the real tournament – is typical of the problems of these competitions. Medals count more than performances do. While this happens in team sports fairly often towards the end of the season (star players are rested, games are won or lost based on a team’s playoff wishes), it surprised the Olympic officials and surely disappointed the dim-witted fans who shelled out exorbitant sums of money to attend this foolish spectacle. In any event, I am not sure why there needs to be so many sports involving throwing things back and forth over a net; one sport would have sufficed. But the thrill of competition means nothing; the victory is everything and the sense of failure in defeat can be overwhelming when one’s life is so focused on – even obsessed with – winning the event.
What else is sacrificed for sports? The peculiar boast by champion swimmer Ryan Lochte’s mother – that her son has no time for relationships but prefers to exploit women serially, and very briefly – is not only a sign of the decline of normal motherhood and the inculcation of moral values in the young but also of the single-mindedness that afflicts parents who are living through, and profiting from, their children’s success, if they indeed succeed. That narrow focus strikes me as sad, and such an upbringing as deprivation of the worst sort – of what is most important in life.
Even that does not compare to the classical American conundrum that Senator Marco Rubio is trying to avert: in the US, the medal winners are taxed by the federal government because the medals themselves have value and are construed as income. He estimated that a gold medal winner would have to pay more than $8000 just for winning the medal, a hefty sum for a young amateur competitor in an obscure sport that promises no great payday at the end. Such penalties (See? Taxes can be penalties also, as per Chief Justice Roberts) are largely unknown in the rest of the world, and Senator Rubio wants to amend the US tax code to exempt the winners from this mandate, even so as not to encourage them to eschew the gold and win silver or bronze, which are worth much less. But the government behemoth must be fed, and that pettiness is sprinkled throughout the tax code. Good for Rubio to try to undo the effects of this parsimoniousness.
A country’s smallness is ultimately not determined by size, population or even achievements in sports – but by its embrace (or rebuff) of fundamental values, its commitment to moral excellence, and, in our case, to the propagation of G-d’s word to the rest of the world. This morning’s paper brought the news that Tumarkin finished seventh in the finals; yet, his effort was celebrated and he is being extolled for his accomplishment.
The cliché would maintain that that is the true Olympic spirit, but that is an empty platitude. There is no Olympic spirit, and the crass commercialization only adds to the small-mindedness. The truth is that the Tumarkin episode is uplifting, and arouses momentary national pride without any tears, frustrations or recriminations. Each Israeli athletes’ feats are honored, lose or lose, and if someone sneaks in a medal victory every few years, how wonderful and unexpected.
Those countries where the national esteem is dependent on medals are the real losers, small and morally diminutive. Any place where achievement and effort can be lionized is really not small at all – and particularly where those achievements benefit, and not simply serve to distract, all of mankind.