The 2016 Olympics were winding down. It was time for me to fact check a story I had once been told concerning elite athletes. There was an intensity and singleness of purpose that I saw in expression after expression on so many of the competitors’ faces that I wanted to separate urban legend from misremembering from what the truth was.
As it turns out, there actually is something called the Goldman Dilemma. Back in the 1980s a researcher named Bob Goldman asked world-class athletes in power sports this question: “If I had a magic drug that was so fantastic that if you took it once you would win every competition you would enter from the Olympic Decathlon to the Mr. Universe, for the next five years but it had one minor drawback, it would kill you five years after you took it, would you still take the drug?”
He found that more than half said they would take it. This result was consistent in his findings over a period from 1982 to 1995. (He asked every two years during that period)
Before anyone gets twisted up here, there has been subsequent research which claims to blunt Bob’s research and his conclusions.
Personally, I suspect that what changed from the time of the initial research until the latter studies wasn’t human nature. I suspect that the athletes learned to answer less candidly. The truth was unflattering….ok, the truth was downright disturbing.
The level of dedication and sacrifice that is demanded of these elite athletes can hardly be exaggerated. The reward, for most, is meager. Even for medalists. Non Hall of Famers in any sport very often need to have second careers.
Athletes know this . (You do realize that they do talk amongst themselves.)
On the faces of these Olympians, there is evidence of more than a desire to win.
There is a need to win.
To win is to be validated and justified. To not win is to be tossed into the dust bin of ‘also rans’. Earlier television coverage hammered home the emotional images of the ‘ecstasy of winning’ and the ‘agony of defeat’. There is no glory ever given to ‘trying’.
Alongside a person’s natural physical abilities, there is a mind-set that is cultivated through coaching and competing that grips these athletes. It is easy to understand how personal values can be compromised and state sponsored doping flourish.
Athletic competition is introduced to children as a path towards developing character and abilities, a form of self improvement through dedication and perseverance. At entry level and mid level events, this is more true than not. At these levels, there is still the joy of trying, the love of the game and the opportunity for self-discovery.
Beyond these levels, however, the genuine value of competing becomes distorted. Money, pride and ego, obsession, compulsion and a person’s sense of self-worth combine to drive these athletes, coaches and programs towards unhealthy choices.
Competition, as a motivator or as a way of life, ultimately does not bring out our best. Time after time, for the sake of ‘winning’, we are often making choices that reflect ourselves at our worst.
Upon further review, I simply stopped watching.