Is the Olympic medal or mettle the reward? Neither!

olympic figure

The pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics ended three days ago, but I suspect we’re still not grasping its significance.

The world argued for months whether it should proceed or not, given that the pandemic showed no signs of relenting. Many who were for it were clearly pleased that the Olympics’ governing body (the IOC) held fast to the decision for Tokyo to host the games last month as planned.

No doubt these, mainly competing athletes and their coaches, were likely gripped by the prospect of lifting up a coveted Olympic medal as the ultimate reward. Others, mainly the spectators and fans, would likely say the mettle displayed in these Games ought to be reason and reward enough to tune in and support the event.

My contention is that neither of these rewards even comes close to what this international event should really be about.

Let me explain first by declaring two inescapable truisms.

Truism #1: Medals “collect dust”

close up photo of medals on wooden surface
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Let’s face it: Medals “collect dust”!

For fame is ultimately fleeting, no matter the human endeavour, be it studies, science, sports or whatever.

The minute you lift up that degree, prize, trophy, medal or symbol of triumph, your moment of victory and celebration quickly becomes a part of the past. The clock simply resume its relentless ticking into the unknown future once you step down from the winner’s podium. A future where a new star will shine while you quietly fade into the night.

Don’t get me wrong. History is important. Absolutely. Where would we be without those who blazed the trail before us, giving us a standard to strive for and hopefully exceed?

But for far too long now, we’ve made that singular moment everything, especially when it comes to sports, and the Olympics! The first runner to cross the finish line. The swimmer that touches the pool wall ahead of the pack. The next weightlifter to punch the air in victory after demonstrating the strength of a biblical Samson!

All because from time immemorial, we have internalised the fallacy that bigger, faster, stronger, higher is the ultimate proof we have worth.

Yet today’s Caeleb Dressler (Tokyo 2020 Olympics’ 100m Butterfly winner) will be tomorrow’s Joseph Schooling (the former winner). This capricious world quickly loses interest in those who lose out, fall out or drop out.

I love what Dressler recently declared: ““This is something that happens once every four years for a race that happens 40-something, 20-something seconds, you have to be so perfect in that moment. There’s so much pressure on one moment. Your whole life boils down to that moment… how crazy is that?”

Sounds like he’s someone who needs little to convince him about this first truism!

So if winning the coveted medal’s not it, then what about the grit and mettle displayed by the athletes?

Surely that’s what this event is all about no?

Truism #2: “Mettle matters”, momentarily

person swimming on body of water
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Swimmer Joseph Schooling, our nation’s only Olympic gold medalist, literally sank in the Olympic heats in Tokyo for his pet event, the 100 metre butterfly. (He finished last)

Unfortunately for him (and us), you can almost feel the online vitriol insert itself into coffee conversations the moment that happened.

Lines that go something like “C’mon, at least let your last position placing be in the finals of the 100m butterfly, not the heats!” And that’s probably one of the the milder forms of criticism bandied about.

How about more cruel ones like “Was his gold medal in the Rio 2016 Olympics a fluke?”

Such insensitivity and total disregard for the dogged determination that keeps athletes working tirelessly and painfully. Week after week. Year after year.

What kind of world do we live in when we pass snide remarks at fallen heroes? Just what kind of fellow human beings are we?

Don’t hard work and mettle, to get to this level of competition, matter? We seem to have such a low tolerance for failure, pain, the unknown, and the uncomfortable.

Why? What are we afraid of?

The question of the day.

But no matter the answer, the stark reality is hard to ignore: mettle matters but only for a moment. Cause when you fail, this cruel world won’t care that you ran an extra mile, or put in more training hours in the lead-up to the competition.

They only remember that you lost it.

How tragic.

Here’s what it boils down to

man wearing black long sleeved shirt standing on mountain
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I recall some years ago, the local media (or maybe it was the country’s Olympic committee), started to slip in the title “Olympian” as a prefix to the names of any athlete in our country representing us at the Olympic Games.

Technically, it’s not untrue.

But I suspect it was surreptitiously introduced in order to boost the morale of the contenders, and by extension the nation’s spirit. To believe that one day we can add the terms “Gold/Silver/Bronze Medal” to the title “Olympian”.

Do you know what that actually signals? It’s this world telling us: You’re only someone of worth if you have a title to call your own, one that only the privileged can have.

Meaning the rest of us are nobodies?!

Is that fair?

But that’s not even the worse thing.

For me the bigger grouse is how the world tries to sweep the ugly and unpleasant under the carpet. Like how I always tidy up the flip-flops outside my apartment before I go to bed at night. You know, so if anyone should chance upon my abode, at least my footwear is decently displayed.


But therein lies our human malaise. We never want to appear to the outside world as anything other than immaculately put together. Nicely decked out like branded shop windows in Ginza or Champs-Elysees.

Yet true living is in going through pain and unpleasantries, because those keep us real. They keep us human and connected with one another.

Which brings me to what the true worth and reward for something as huge as the Olympics actually ought to be.

It’s displayed vulnerability that creates shared unity

low angle photo of people s fingers doing star shape
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I believe there’s a “humanity enemy” out there that wants to divide then conquer us. It wants to keep us apart so we don’t need each other but seek instead our own ‘happiness’, our own ‘satisfaction’, our own ‘pie in the sky’.

Which is why we need events like the Olympics.

Inasmuch as we watch in delight the athletes who triumph, we’re even more inexorably drawn to what I call the “humanity moments.”

Like when shot putter Ryan Crouser holds up a message to his grandpa after winning.

Or two runners helping each other up to finish a race after getting entangled and falling.

Or just the serene picture of diver Tom Daley knitting in the stands.

These seemingly raw and vulnerable snapshots are what unites us. They make us see that together, we really are more than the sum of individual parts. Together, we can be open and vulnerable. We can show our warts and all without fear of being scoffed at.

I want to live in such a world, don’t you?

Sadly, the closest I get to do that is when our world comes together (even with social distancing this time) in an event like the Olympics.

But make no mistake. The many vulnerabilities that show on this global stage unites our world like no other.

Thankfully, (fingers crossed) you and I needn’t wait four years for the next Olympics. The next time we the human race show our vulnerability, our shared unity, our humanity.

Viva la 2024″!

3 thoughts on “Is the Olympic medal or mettle the reward? Neither!

  1. Oh yeah, I’ve always enjoyed watching moments like these. In sports like fighting too, there are times when the athletes quash their beef after a great fight, and both winner and loser celebrate the amazing battle they shared. I believe that sport brings out the best in us (though that depends on the character of the person too). Anyway, great post, Kelvin!

    1. Yep! I’m not by nature a sporty person but even I can’t help it when the Olympics comes around. To watch these athletes at the peak of their games yet willing to unite and extend a hand of friendship to one another (masks not withstanding of cos) is the very essence of our humanity ya? Thanks for dropping by again….always grateful for your support!

  2. Very, very insightful. Thank you for reminding us of what makes us “us” rather than “we” vs. “them”.

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