sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

An Olympics gone by: What did your kids do all summer?

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This year a family beach vacation overlapped with the Olympics, so I was able to get a huge dose of the events from London. I am one of those people who loves the summer games, and I was able to indulge that passion more than any year since probably 1984.

I’m always surprised at how much emotion the games stir up in me. I see people rise to the zenith, often having worked in obscurity for years. I watch disappointment made all the tougher because most of them only get one shot every four years in their chosen endeavor.

But there’s a bittersweet feeling around it all. It’s not just that I understand the complaints of those turned off by the medal counts, the cheating, the jingoism, the hyperbole, and Mary Carillo. While I like so much that the Olympics will hatch a dream in some kids out there who want to fence, or swim, or grapple, or run, or row their way to a gold medal, I wonder if the way we are shown the games adds a peculiar, particular pressure on those already feverish parents who see in their children a chance to make up for their own unfulfilled dreams.

A couple years ago I wrote about mass “inception,” based on the movie of that name out at that time, thinking satirically about parents who try to implant their own sporting dreams into their children’s minds. While I enjoy so many Olympic moments, I wonder if the games we see encourage this. After all, on TV, we mainly see the champions. It’s rare that we see a competitor who finished 22nd. We don’t get to look into that person’s eyes or hear that person’s story.

That’s a shame, because if that person was once a child who was driven by an intrinsic desire to be the best and worked to his or her own limits, then that 22nd place is the end point of a life journey as great as that of the winner’s.

Because that journey, the path was itself fulfilling. As we enter fall and the sports cycle begins anew (although does it ever really end any more?), you might ask yourself this simple question: What did your kids do all summer? Did they stay outside, quietly practicing while no one else was looking, until the mosquitoes almost carried them away each night? Did they watch the Olympics events in their sport, rapt, fascinated? (I can tell you my kids most certainly did not, instead thinking dad, who was sitting there all misty-eyed on the couch blubbering, “You have to watch this!” over and over again, had lost it.) Or did they take part in an endless shuttling to and from practices, camps, and trainers, all organized, facilitated, and prodded by you?

If without their handlers and schedulers, their balls and gloves and sticks gathered dust — if they spent their summer just being kids — then whose dream is really being pursued?

It takes some soul searching to answer that question after thousands of dollars and your own significant emotional, financial, and time commitments. Yes, many Olympic stories include supportive parents who at times had to push, to encourage. But it’s simple: Your commitment and interest cannot replace your children’s, however much we might be in a peculiar parenting era in which we believe they can.

As you watch one gold medal national anthem after another, it can all start to seem so attainable in some disconnected way. Yet the Olympic athlete is an unusual combination of desire, natural talent, and opportunity. I like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers take on this type of thing; he describes how the highest levels of success take an incredibly rare match of fortunate circumstances with an astonishing time commitment (he talks about expertise in terms of 10,000 hours of commitment: Yep, 10,000 hours).

The Olympics leaves me so emotionally wrung because I love seeing people define and reach a goal. I think about the things they gave up, the amount of effort, and it gets me all maudlin about the human spirit. I know behind these individuals is a network of people who made their own commitment, especially parents. But the commitment has to reside primarily in the athlete.

The sports-centric parents I know, and I know a lot of them, have done more than their share to create the opportunity part of this equation. Henry Clay once said, “The time will come when Winter will ask you what you were doing all Summer.” The question that will define your child will be about what they did all summer, not what you made them do. Thinking of someone standing up with a medal listening to a national anthem as the culmination of another person’s dream seems perverse, and it also seems impossible.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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3 Responses to “An Olympics gone by: What did your kids do all summer?”

  1. “the highest levels of success take an incredibly rare match of fortunate circumstances with an astonishing time commitment ”
    Do you reallize how many even American athletes have had to opt to leave their familes to train? Fortune? Maybe the option to sacrifice but it hardly feels fortunate to me.

  2. I think that, very generally, kids these days are much less interested in the Olympics than when we were kids, and I think it largely has to do with the Cold War being over. The games meant a lot 30 years ago because not only were they a sporting event, but they were a surrogate for a competition that’s more or less gone from the Western World. The Olympics in the 70s and 80s were as much a geopolitical conflagration as anything involving sport. Without missiles ominously backing up the rhetoric of the arena, I’m not sure the games hold the same rapt attention they once did. I don’t think it’s the kids inasmuch as its us, and the weight we put on the games. What was once an East-West showdown, these days, is, at best, quaint. Plus, there’s almost a civility to the Cold War era games that was somewhat comforting during a nuclear arms race. With the exception of the 80 and 84 respective boycotts, the Olympics were symbolic of how, despite differences, we could at least “meet them on the field.” We can’t even do that with our enemies today, and as as a result, the games somehow less impactful.

  3. This reminds me of something I meant to do this summer…MAKE my kids do anything. We were more interested in the Olympics because we had fewer choices. But I found myself watching less of the Olympics than in past years. It’s become more evident to me that, like war and religion, the Olympics offer false satisfaction, or at least pursuit, of humanity’s need to be right. If it’s the sports we love, let me know how badminton’s or diving’s TV ratings are in 2013. It’s fun to see how superior we are and curious to see why every now and then we are not.

    But my kids did willingly watch the Olympics (am I supposed to capitalize this word?). They loved to test themselves on flags and anthems. And my kids suffered the thrill of victory, seeing that even world-class divers sometimes make a splash like they do, and the agony of defeat, in realizing the silver and bronze medalists do not get their anthems played.

    If us parents get sidetracked by what we want for our children, we’ll only obstruct their natural course. To be great at anything takes determination and guidance; but it also takes instinct, passion, unexplainable gift, and yes…luck.

    Right now, it appears I have a chef, architect, linguist, and teacher in my house. But I’ll lay low and see how it develops.

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