Sunday, July 29, 2012

What Price Glory?

I have long been a fan of the Olympics and so I watched some of the TV broadcast from London last evening: beach volleyball, some gymastics and swimming, but between the all-too-frequent commercials and the incessant, annoyingly-noisy severe thunderstorm alerts being issued by the National Weather Service, I finally turned of the TV to head upstairs to read. As I was lying in bed, reflecting on the Games, I recalled a column I had written about the XXIII Olympic Games in 1984, about a particularly hard-to-watch incident which had happened and was televised live (as most of the games were back then) for all the world to see. I share it with you as a reflection upon the dichotomy between the drive to win and the need for compassion. Perhaps some of you will remember this, too...

Glory- At What Price? (August 1984)

          Though not a particularly great fan of television, I have found myself seated in front of the tube every evening for the past week, reveling in the spectacle of the games of the XXIII Olympiad. On numerous occasions, I have found myself shouting encouragement to some of the athletes, leaping from my chair in excitement over a particularly dramatic win, and shedding tears as the American athletes stand at respectful attention during the playing of our National Anthem.

          The wonderful wins by the men’s gymnastics team, Mary Lou Retton, Julianne McNamara, Edwin Moses, Tracy Caulkins, Rowdy Gaines, and the many other U.S. swimmers have brought day after day of pride and pleasure. And the generous and caring way in which the athletes of different nations appear to be treating one another has been particularly inspirational.

          But on Sunday, I witnessed a spectacle which brought tears and cries of a different kind as we, along with about a billion other viewers, watched the last-lap struggle of Swiss marathoner, Gabriela Anderson-Scheiss. As the television cameras picked up this athlete’s entry into the coliseum, it was immediately apparent that something was drastically wrong. This woman appeared dazed and she listed noticeably to the left. Close-up views by TV cameras showed glazed, almost un-seeing eyes, wobbly legs, and made it clear to everyone watching that this young woman was in desperate trouble, physically.

          Marty Liquori, the former runner who was doing commentary with the other ABC announcers, cried out for someone to help her, imploring that she not be allowed to continue. “There is the danger of brain damage,” he explained, “when someone is so dehydrated and the body temperature soars. She should not be allowed to continue.” He rmade reference to a British marathoner, Jim Peters, who had a similar finish with severe heat exhaustion, stating emphatically that Peters was “never the same” afterward. But Liquori’s appeals apparently fell on deaf ears, as no one around the track stepped forward to help the obviously-distressed Anderson-Scheiss. I was in tears by this time, unable to believe that anyone who was actually there, seeing this struggle in person, could remain uninvolved. Here was a human being in deep and desperate need- and no one was doing anything!

          Liquori became more impassioned in his commentary as he stated emphatically that if this were a boxing match, the referee would have stepped in long ago. And though other announcers defended the non-interference by those around the track by emphasizing that this racer would be disqualified if anyone touched her, I agreed with the former runner in his statement that the well-being of this woman was far more important than her disqualification from the race.

          From my comfortable, cool seat in our family room, I implored those at the stadium to do something. My pain was real as I watched those last agonizing two hundred meters. But no one was willing to take the responsibility to step in; no one seemed to care enough to intervene in this case when the young woman herself seemed unaware of what was happening or even where she was. As she was passed by runner after runner, all headed for the finish line, I found it incomprehensible that not even one of the other athletes reached out to her. Their only goal was to cross the finish line, to complete the race, and another athlete in need did not seem to affect them.
          Now I am certainly not an athlete of Olympic caliber. In fact, my own athletic abilities are faltering at best. I have never trained for an athletic event for years of my life, and I certainly cannot begin to know the physical strength and stamina of a marathoner. But I can recognize pain and suffering when I see it- and Anderson-Scheiss was certainly in pain and was suffering mightily during that last grueling lap. Where was everybody? Where was just one somebody who cared enough about Gabriela as a person to risk disapproval and even ridicule by stepping in to assist a fellow human being?

          Never have I watched something more intently; never have I felt so deeply about the picture on the TV screen. I cried out more than once, as the pain I was viewing became mine. And even later reports, which I awaited anxiously, telling of Gabriela’s apparent recovery, did little to reassure me of the ultimate outcome of what I had seen. Late in the evening, a reporter from ABC interviewed the athlete, by now seemingly recovered from her earlier ordeal. In that interview, Anderson-Scheiss acknowledged that although she recalled entering the coliseum, from then on everything was black- she remembered nothing. And although she stated that she was fine, though somewhat weak, I couldn’t help recalling the British athlete mentioned earlier that day by Marty Liquori, the one who had never fully recovered from his similar experience. And I wondered about the future of this not-so-young woman, praying silently that her recovery would indeed be complete and that she would indeed be able to go on and compete again.

          Looking back, I still question the entire incident. Jim McKay of ABC, following the interview with Anderson-Sheiss, stated that the last mile of the race had taken her more than sixteen minutes! And the word “courageous” kept entering the commentary: such a “courageous” finish; such “courage” in this total effort. How, I wonder, would those commentators be feeling if this “courageous” woman were lying in a coma or worse, had lost her life all in the name of sport, of athletics. At what point does the drive for excellence in a sport become cruel and heartless, an insult to mind and body? And at what point do we indeed become out brother’s- or in this case- our sister’s keeper?

          To me, the truly courageous person would have been the one who, obeying his or her inner self, would have stepped onto that track and helped this desperately-struggling athlete: out of love; out of compassion; out of deep care for another human being, at the risk of looking foolish, even of being wrong. For at what price glory? Is the glory of the sport ever justified at the expense of a human body or spirit? I hope and pray that in the wonder and pride and excitement of these Olympics we do not become so caught up in the athletic events that we forget the intrinsic value of the athletes themselves. Without them, the events would not exist; the games would not go on. I deeply hope that we can revel in the wonder of the gifts God has given to these remarkable people without losing sight of their intrinsic value simply as part of God’s creation.

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