On Tuesday night swimmer Michael Phelps won his 20th gold medal. He touched the wall .04 seconds before Masato Sakai from Japan and almost a full second ahead of South African rival Chad le Clos. Phelps lost the lost the same race to le Clos at the 2012 London Olympics by five hundredths of a second.
Phelps went crazy after his victory, encouraging the crowd to cheer louder and repeatedly holding up the number 1 (in case you weren’t aware, he’s the most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time).
What Does it Take to Win Gold?
The Olympics is supposedly a celebration of the greatest athletes on the planet, but if the measuring stick is four hundredths of a second, the measurement is basically meaningless. Phelps’s consistency over the course of his career is what establishes his dominance, but many athletes at this level don’t have the opportunity to back up their medals with repeated victories.
In 2008, Nastia Liukin beat Shawn Johnson for the all-around gold medal in women’s gymnastics by six-tenths of a point. Weeks earlier, Johnson beat Liukin at the Olympic trials. The two went back and forth like this for two years before the Olympics.
So was Nastia Liukin really, unquestionably the best gymnast in the world? No. She was the best gymnast on one particular day at one particular competition. It just happened to be the competition people remember.
Or take the example of Jordyn Wieber at the London games in 2012. She was the all-around World Champion, but didn’t qualify to represent the U.S. at the Olympics by .233 points. Gabrielle Douglas went on to win the all-around title in 2012, but didn’t qualify for the individual all-around at the 2016 Olympics.
If you have ever attended a cabaret or graduation, you’ve probably heard this question asked a different way, in a song from the musical Rent. “How do you measure a life? In moments?” The song argues we should measure in love, the Olympics argue hundredths of a second should be the determining factor.
The Problem With labels
There’s a commercial that’s been airing during the Olympics where athletes share all of the derogatory labels that have been cast upon them—small, woman, black. It ends with the tagline “the only label that matters is Olympian.”
It’s supposed to be inspiring, but if Olympian is really the only important label than most people on the planet don’t matter. The real message of the ad is that what’s important isn’t how other people label you, but the labels you earn for yourself.
Commercials like this reinforce a label hierarchy whereby you trade in a “negative” label for a “positive” one. The problem is individuals rarely have control of the meaning of these labels, and these connotations can change at any time.
What if in the future people boycott the Olympics because they are frivolous and wasteful? Right now being labeled Olympian is the best option available for many people, but it’s still just a label.
Everyone Is a Loser
America is one of the most competitive countries on the planet. This is a necessary byproduct of the pursuit of the American dream—the blind belief that hard work will lead to unparalleled success.
This philosophy is seen in arguments over whether children should be rewarded for participating in an activity. Many parents believe children should not receive a ribbon or trophy unless they’ve earned it, and that the only way to earn such recognition is through winning. They prefer the four hundredths of a second method of awarding value.
Science has yet to conclusively determine who’s right. Some studies demonstrate children who are “overvalued” by their parents display more narcissistic traits. Lots of research has also demonstrated that competition is bad for kids. And let’s be realistic, most children aren’t really good at anything. They’re kids. Someone a few years older will always be better.
Ray Williams wrote a piece for Psychology Today analyzing why America is so obsessed with winning. He concludes the desire to win is often related to the desire to be valued, but ultimately, he sees it as a distraction from finding true self worth.
“In contrast, the satisfaction of success and doing the best you can through cooperation has been shown to be linked with emotional maturity and strong personal identity,” he says.
Children may not be able to differentiate between meaningful accomplishments and arbitrary awards, but adults should.
Mindless competitive drive does not improve quality of life. While some studies indicate competition can improve efficiency, others have shown the opposite to be true. Not only can competition decrease productivity, it also leads to unhappiness and stinginess. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research center, 57 percent of Americans acknowledged “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.”
When you use moments as the measuring stick for winning then most people are always going to be losers. Yet Americans continue to support a winner take all structure, despite being aware that individuals don’t have much control over this system. Why?
Medals Don’t Matter
Perhaps the reason humans crave these labels is their tangibility. It’s nearly impossible to measure the things most people claim are truly important—love, kindness, happiness.
You do not win gold medals or accolades for being an average, decent human being trying your best to live a good life. You win medals by coming in first, even if the difference between you and the person behind you is unimaginably small. People like hierarchies because they order the world and give them a sense of where they stand in comparison to their peers, but if the examples of Jordyn Wieber, Nastia Liukin, or Gabby Douglas tell us anything, it’s that being the best in the world is an illusion. And none of this even touches on the relative uselessness of excelling at these sports.
What’s beautiful about the ordinary human existence though, is it’s not measured by hundredths of a second. You have moments, yes, but more importantly you have days, months, and years. You have a life.