I have had to tear myself away from my television to write this post. After all, the gold medal match in women’s doubles table tennis is on, and I hate to miss it. That may sound tongue-in-cheek, but I’m serious. In the past 10 days I have been consumed by the Olympics. While others criticize the strangle-hold NBC has on the games, I’ve enjoyed watching wrestling on my phone, sailing on my computer, and all manner of racquet sports on the various cable television outlets.
While I consider myself somewhat athletic, or at least active, I’ve been wondering why I’m so consumed by the “Games of the XXX Olympiad.” Yes, I watched the Olympics as a kid, and every four years they catch my attention. And I enjoy watching sports on television as much as the next person. But my experience of the Games is qualitatively different this year.
Like most, I’m drawn by the amazing achievement and ability of the athletes. The things they can do with their bodies, as well as their minds, is truly astounding. And the competition itself is compelling. Watching an individual or team progress from the early rounds to trying for a gold medal, we’re drawn into the battle ourselves. And while sometimes the “back story” that the network tells us about the athletes feels forced or rehearsed, there is genuine human drama involved in each stroke of the oar and each smash of the shuttlecock. I also enjoy the complete surprises, the “no-name” athletes from small countries who shock us with spectacular performances and unexpected victories.
But beyond all of this, what has captivated me this year as it never has in the past, is the pursuit, and sometimes realization, of human potential that Olympic competition represents. One of the sponsors of the broadcast runs a commercial showing the swimmer, Ryan Lochte, swimming across an ocean. His voice-over says that dreaming did not get him to the Olympics. That imagination didn’t get him there. That hope didn’t get him there. “I had to swim there,” he tells us. It was, he says, simply hard work that got him to the Olympics. And I think that’s the most egregious misrepresentation of what it takes to excel at athletics and, for that matter, any human endeavor.
Work without dreaming is drudgery. Work without hope is slavery. To toil without imagination is to repeat by rote, wearing down a rut that eventually will become a grave. It is imagination, dreams, and hopes that fuel our efforts, that inspire our achievements. And what has inspired me during these Olympics are the dreams of these athletes, along with their commitment to pursue them.
I watched a young American table tennis player named Ariel Hsing progress through the early rounds of the singles tournament. At age 16, Ariel was playing on the world’s biggest stage. We were told that, at the age of 8, Ariel dreamed of playing ping pong at the Olympics, that she wrote that dream down on a piece of paper that she kept in a box in her room. And there she was. She eventually lost to the number two seed in the tournament, but her dream had become a reality.
And as I watched Ariel I wondered what my life might have been, had I had such a dream and had I pursued it with such dogged determination from such a young age? Or what any of our lives might have been had we done so? And then I realized that we needn’t ask that question in the past-tense, like only our youthful dreaming matters. Each day, as long as we’re still breathing, we have the chance to dream, to imagine, to hope. And each day we have the chance to work to make that dream a reality.
What is your dream for yourself? What do you imagine doing, or being, or becoming? What is your hope for the future? How and when will you (and will I) start the work of making them a reality?