Ok, so the title was meant to get your attention. Not all elite athletes suck. But let me tell you a few stories…

One person bullied someone that was going to take her spot on the field, making the target so uncomfortable that they decided to leave the team. Another engaged in shameless flirting with a high-powered coach as they climbed far higher than made sense to anyone around them. That coach was later fired for inappropriate relations with players and that player never came close to receiving similar opportunities. A third led an effort to rally players to take a stand for something important, but stayed quiet and let others take the fall when people in power found out about it. 

What would you say if I told you that some of the people that I’ve mentioned above are some of the most successful athletes that I have ever come across?

It goes a little bit against the idea that we are spoon-fed that those that reach the pinnacle of sport are the epitome of every good value that society has to offer, right?

This week we woke up to another shocking story of an athlete that had reached the pinnacle of sport and subsequently human values, whose actions painted a horribly different story: Oscar Pistorius, a South African athlete who inspired people of all genres with his amazing runs on carbon fiber “blade” legs at the 2012 able-bodied Olympics, had shot and killed his beautiful girlfriend, in not the first of “domestic incidents” at his home according to authorities.

Add that to the Manti Te’o inspirational narrative that filled our TV screens and magazines the entire college season, that proved to be a lie. And sprinkle a dash of Lance Armstrong emerging from his seven yellow jerseys to be exposed as a liar, a cheater and a bully, and its been nothing short of a rough few months, for those that buy what has been offered to us, that elite sports and the highest level of human values go hand in hand.

Instead of being surprised, these above mentioned stories exposed something that I became aware of as I climbed higher and higher in the sporting world; this marriage of good values and success in sports is simply a myth perpetuated by Nike, the Olympics, TV companies and other people getting rich off of making a marriage of elite sport and the representation of superior human values. For those on the outside that haven’t had a peek through the smoke and mirrors, there is no reason not to question this truth that is presented. The reality is starting to seep out now with these stories, and our reaction is disbelief when the “truth” and reality fall so differently; kind of like how we drank soda for decades buying the marketing that it was something positive for us, until we noticed our health eroding all around us. Coke, like Nike had a lot to gain and lose through the perpetuation of lies.

A broader, more important consequence of this however, is that it has taken the focus, joy and stamp of success away from the process and instead changed the diameters of the journey whether in sport or in life. It has made a marriage of human values and the pinnacle of sport, or anything into black and white discussion, one that is result-focused and only obtainable by reaching the top.

That being said, I’d like to argue that if you took a random sample of elite athletes that stand on our hypothetical mountaintop versus “regular society”, those that subscribe to “Nike” values such as integrity, determination, hard work, and commitment and those that don’t, that we would have two pie charts that look about the same.

But unfortunately the primary goal is not presenting truth in the business of selling clothing or getting ratings. So we as a society, let billboards and emotional montages tell us who our heroes are instead of recognizing a single mom who busts her butt every day to put food on the table and raise happy well-adjusted kids while balancing a full time job, or someone with a disability or that has had something horrible happen to them, that choose to wake up with a positive attitude every day and maximize their life, as the ones really subscribing to the highest values that human life have to offer.

Some that are put on this pedestal are more than happy to perpetuate the myth as it feeds the ego and the pocketbook; none more derelict than Lance Armstrong allowing his brand to be build on a hero who “beat” cancer and perpetuating that “truth” as it fed him millions, setting up a dangerous dichotomy of winners and losers based on who was lucky enough to survive the disease (read here an incredible blog that a good friend wrote about her brother who passed away from cancer and the effect that the Lance story had on her).

So my point in all this? Maybe the good and positive to come out of all of these stories is that we start an introspection of a society as to who or what really defines positive human values, and the kinds of people we choose to put on pedestals. Perhaps we will start making our own definitions, and appreciate the many heroes around us, instead of blindly allowing clothing lines or the people organizing major sporting events to feed us our truths.

Perhaps then, these shocking stories that no doubt will continue as long as the human heart beats, will not drag us into their clutches and allow us to focus on all the examples of real heroes around us, that are far more deserving of our attention and focus.

One thought

  1. Agreed, but I guess some people just need to see the world through pink-colored glasses.
    Quoting that often misunderstood sage, Charles Barkley, I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.””

    The business world is no different, lots of the guys who climb the corporate ladder got there by stabbing whoever was in front of them in the back. The funny thing is people tend less to idolize CEOs than athletes.

    IMHO, anyone naive enough to buy into the portrait of high-level athletes as übermensch and moral compasses for society should get their heads examined…

    I leave you with another of my favorite quotes from Sir Charles: “These are my new shoes. They’re good shoes. They won’t make you rich like me, they won’t make you rebound like me, they definitely won’t make you handsome like me. They’ll only make you have shoes like me. That’s it.”

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