By Ben Connelly
As I type this, the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympics are underway, with the United States leading the overall medal count and in third place for gold medal count. The Olympic Marathon, is about a week away (Friday, August 6th for women and Saturday, August 7th for men).
Whether or not you are watching any of this year’s Olympic Games, it is worth reflecting on why the idea and spirit of the Olympics matter. And why they should inspire us in our own athletic pursuits. While specific issues about this Olympics, or previous ones, can be divisive, let us put aside those concerns and look at the larger picture. The Olympics is a celebration of athletic excellence at the highest levels of human performance. That is something worth celebrating. And it can remind us of why we pursue our own athletic excellence and push our own levels of performance.
The marathon is one of the oldest Olympic events, beginning with the Ancient Greeks. Since that time, the race has grown longer (from 24 miles to 26.2). But it remains a core event.
According to USATF’s website, the last Americans to win gold in the marathon were the legendary Frank Shorter (1972) and Joan Benoit (1984). Which means it has been almost 50 years and 40 years since the U.S. men and women won gold, respectively. The most recent medals won by Americans were Deena Kastor (bronze, 2004) and Galen Rupp (bronze, 2016). Notably, Rupp is returning this year to make another attempt at medaling. Abdi Abdirahman, Jake Riley, Sally Kipyego, Molly Siedel, and Aliphine Tuliamuk round out the U.S. Marathon team. (1,2) We wish them well.
Taking a step back to reflect on the larger picture, we can admire the idea of the Olympics: that every two years (alternating winter and summer events), the world’s top athletes gather to compete in front of billions of viewers. To some degree, the Olympics is a celebration of peaceful athletic competition between nations rather than violent war. But in reality, the Olympics is a celebration of athletic excellence.
Olympic runners are at the highest levels of the sport. They have not only worked hard for years to arrive at this stage, they are gifted with levels of natural talent that many of us can only marvel at. There is something beautiful about striving and competition, and about human beings who attempt to redefine the limits of human endurance, speed, and strength. Steve Prefontaine famously said that “a race is a work of art.”(3) We watch these men and women and we admire them and – at their best – we are moved by them.
Most of us will never run a marathon anywhere close to the speed that Eliud Kipchoge, or Brigid Kosgei, or Galen Rupp, or Sally Kipyego run. But the great thing about running is that we often measure our performance in comparison to our own physical limits and past performances, rather than in comparison to the performance of others.
When Kipchoge keeps striving to break the 2-hour marathon (and eventually does), we are reminded of our own attempts at an impossible goal. When we see the effort that these elites put into their training, diet, and recovery, we are inspired to put in our own effort – whether that means waking up at 5am to run 18 miles, or cutting refined sugar from our diets completely in the final weeks of training. When we watch the world’s greatest athletes compete on the highest stage, we can understand that competition is not always a bad thing, and that sometimes it is a beautiful thing.
At its best, competition brings out human greatness and human flourishing. And ideally, that is what it does at the Olympics. When humans transcend previous records (whether world records or their own previous records), they accomplish something great. When watching the Olympics, we can admire the greatness of the world’s greatest athletes. And we can be inspired to pursue greatness in our own lives.