Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Right Stuff

I met with a really fine man today at work. He is a former college dean and new, as I am, to the Cleveland Clinic. At the end of our meeting, he broached Margot's participation in the Olympics and, as so many people do, said how proud we must be. He also said that he had spoken to his adult daughter in the past week or so and asked her if she was watching the Olympics. She replied that no, she wasn't watching the Olympics or having anything to do with something that emanated from China with its terrible record on human rights, etc.

While we were in Beijing and after, I read online articles (when the Internet was working!) about "Are the Olympics a success?" and citing the politics, the air quality (more on that in another post), the overpopulation, the censorship of the press, the repression of demonstrations, etc. as factors that denigrated the overall impact of the OIympics.

I would like each one of those detractors to do two things.

The first is to get up close and personal with the family and friends of one of the athletes and learn a little about what is the most important aspect of the games - the competitors. To try to grasp the sacrifice and dedication it takes to make it, and what it means to give yourself up to the pursuit of excellence.

The second is to get up close and personal with real human beings who live in China. To realize the sacrifice they have made to host the games. To get some faint awareness of how PROUD they are to host this event and how much it means to them to have the opportunity to show off what is absolutely wonderful about their culture and their country.

It seems to me that only myopic people with little experience of what the concept of Olympics means can fail to appreciate what is most important - the athletes and the real people who want them to have an awesome experience competing in their country.

Speaking as a parent, the whole experience was a success because the athletes did their best and they were safe and they had an opportunity, hopefully all of them, to explore a bit of China - vast and mysterious and populated with kind and sweet people who, if it weren't for their leaders, wouldn't have a rep for being this or that, and would just be the welcoming people we found them to be.

Perhaps you think this is naive? I think the most disturbing comment I heard while I was in Beijing was the Sat. morning when we were in the Bird's Nest watching track and field. A woman in front of us, from the US, turned around and, with a deprecating shrug and look, said "We have no reason to fear these people." 

It struck me how ingenuous we can be in the US. How many people misinterpret a lack of ability to speak English with stupidity or childishness. With our own particular brand of brittle sophistication, our isolationism (due in great part to our distance geographically) lulls us into thinking that our own cultural traits indicate some superior intelligence or level of ability. 

I wish every person had the ability and means to travel outside the US, outside this continent, to experience a different culture and realize that our way is not the only way. To appreciate that different does NOT mean inferior. I would sincerely not like to be the focus of enmity of people who are capable of building 4000 miles of wall at the top of mountains to keep out their enemies and clearing the air, if only for a couple of weeks, in a city where the atmosphere is typically as grey and thick as a piece of raw tofu.

Of course, travel also reinforces what is awesome about the US. I have never, in all my travels, regretted being a US citizen - no matter how critical my international hosts might be of US policy, etc. There is nowhere else I would rather live.

And I guess for me, the fact that my daughter has spent the last six years of her life trying to get to the point where she could win a medal for the US means that the only disappointment in the Olympics was that she didn't get the medal. But she got THERE, as did many others who worked their butts off.

So, when we think about success and failure, we need to take a broader view of what that really means. We share the world stage, all the countries, all the people, as imperfect as we all are. And it doesn't take all that much effort to try to reach out, appreciate, and understand rather than criticize and condemn.

A kindly person took this photo of the family (missing only Tom who was there in our hearts) after the final race.

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