I read an article the other day about one particular U.S. Olympic team. This is not a team that was featured in prime time. It is not a team that won a medal. Its sport is not one where people can play professionally anywhere in the world and make a living, let alone a lot of money. The players do play for the love of the game. And that's great.
But I am not sure that they are amateurs. It doesn't seem that they have day jobs and then drop what they're doing to join the team when an Olympic cycle begins, say a year before the games. No, it seems that they get a stipend to be on the national team, live at the national training center, and then, well, play for a long time. One of the starters was quoted as saying, "I'm 27, and I have never had a job."
Is that a good thing? If you remember the Olympics when amateurism meant something, you also recall the hypocrisy of the Iron Curtain countries, for many of their stars were in the military and their sole responsibility was playing for, in the Soviets' case, the Red Army team. So much for amateurism. In today's world, the Olympics only care about getting the very best, so no longer do you have the Belgian librarian who is the weight lifter or a school teacher who ran the 1,500. Those days are long gone; they will not return.
I don't want to sit in judgment of the 27 year-old who never has had a job and who thus far has played a kids' game for a living. My guess is that this person will go on and have a career in the sport, getting paid as a coach or as someone who can administer the national team. If that's the case, then as this person ages this person will graduate to a role where she can get reasonable compensation, benefits and the ability to contribute to her retirement. And, hell, it could be fun to play a kids' game for as long as you can without having to have a care in the world outside, well, playing the kids' game well. Sounds like good work if you can get it.
The flip side to the argument is that "are you kidding me, why postpone real life by playing a kids' game that few understand or watch for as long as you can as opposed to doing something else with your life?" And by something else, the person asking the question means, "something that is meaningful" because playing a kids' game forever doesn't seem to be meaningful. Those making this argument will say why did the person get a college degree and then dedicate her young life to this pastime, especially when the U.S. doesn't have a history of earning medals in this sport?
On the one hand, the pursuit is pure and for the love of the game and for a bond with teammates that is deep, meaningful and could last a lifetime. It's not necessarily being a cloistered monk with few possessions who achieves various levels of consciousness that the rest of us cannot begin too, but it is dedication in a very pure sense. You can make the argument that this is what certain academics do; they study a rare subject that gets little attention for the sake of doing it and for coming up with the type of discovery that might be able to shed light on civilization in a meaningful way. Failing that, they would argue that the mere doing the work is pure and sets an example for all that purity in study has meaning, sometimes deeply so.
I don't know how I feel about this. I don't walk in this person's shoes. To a degree, I'm envious -- not having worked, wow! To a degree, I'm aghast -- not having worked, what, do you live in a bubble?
The past 17 days left this relatively anonymous athlete on a relatively anonymous team with a chance to gain some temporary notoriety -- as a team -- had they won a medal. They fell short, and now they'll retreat to their national team headquarters, happy that they fared better than they did in London, but wondering about the next four years. Not having worked until your mid-20's is one thing, but when you're in your early 30's and don't have a working track record, it makes it all the more difficult to get that first job. We're not talking about an athlete with any endorsement money; she is not a swimmer. We're talking about someone much further down on the sports food chain.
The rest of us will say we enjoyed the Olympics, even with the air brushing over Rio's substantial problems, enjoyed how well the U.S. did (overlooking that the games increasingly seem to be a contest for the industrialized, nationalistic countries) and how well certain individuals fared -- Biles, Ledecky, Phelps among them.
And we will forget the rest.
That those who toil in relative anonymity continue on is testimony to their determination and perseverance. There is something to the purity of it all.
At least up until the point where it seems to be a bit extreme and pushes one's life out of balance.