Flying At Your Own Level

Last weekend I was able to watch the Academy Award winning documentary Icarus. Bryan Fogel’s filmic journey into the world of international athletic doping, from experimenting amateur cyclist all the way through to playing midwife to the exposé that led to Russian athletes being (conditionally) banned from the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, is either shocking or business as usual, depending upon your level of sports cynicism going into the viewing.

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Jasmin Bambur of United States during the Alpine Skiing – Men’s Super-G, Sitting at PyeongChang: an antidote to Icarus?

It so happened that, after finishing the movie and turning back over from Netflix to regular broadcast programming, I stumbled upon NBCSN’s coverage of the Winter Paralympics, also coming to you from PyeongChang, South Korea. I caught a showing of the men’s Super-G competitions, both standing and seated, and if it wasn’t quite as spectacular a show as the regular Olympics alpine events, it was at least athletes in competition and striving towards being the best.

The juxtaposition of those two programs I watched, the scandals of Icarus and the Paralympic competition, coming one right after the other, suggested a bigger picture, and perhaps the possibility that the one event provided the correct answer to the other.

The Disgruntled Fan Report logoIcarus makes a very strong case that the Russians have been involved in all sorts of doping for a very long time. It helped immensely that Fogel was able to build a personal relationship with Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who allegedly coordinated the Russians’ scheme by running the country’s anti-doping lab with one hand and devising the means to cheat such measures on the Olympic stage with the other. It’s hard for a reasonable viewer to watch the movie without drawing the conclusion that the Russians, from Vladamir Putin on down, have been rigging international competitions at a huge scale for decades. 

There are clear implications to this conclusion. Obviously, there must have been a lot of athletes who did not win competitions–that is to say, medals in the Olympics–who should have won. Many of those who played fair and honest games were cheated out of their rightful accomplishments. That must be immensely disheartening for all of those so affected. Many, many athletes are going to be left with a lot of “what might have been” feelings for the rest of their lives in the face of these revelations.

“…when the next Olympics roll around in Tokyo in 2020…checking the medal count obsessively may be profoundly unwise. There simply won’t be any knowing whether or not the rest of the competition is on the level or not.”

It’s possible that, in the aftermath of the revelations, retesting will be done (if possible) and the IOC may strip some athletes of medals and award them to other competitors. Maybe. Or maybe not; that ship may have sailed too far away to make a difference now. (It would apparently be impossible for anyone cheated at the Sochi games; according to the film, the Russians put in place there a cheating program so encompassing that even their athletes’ “B” samples were rigged to be clean. Beyond the Sochi scheme, the authenticity of samples collected at other sites remains a matter of question.)

A medal “won” through such a post hoc disqualification may prove to be cold comfort for any athlete so honored. Most of the “what ifs” will remain in place even if the physical medal is handed over to the revised winner. Bells can not be unrung; the past remains the past, no matter what is done to rectify wrongs.

The future, however, remains in doubt. And I’m left to wonder, after last week’s viewings, if an “Icarus effect” will take hold in Olympics competition–and perhaps sports in general–given the realities moving forward.

For sure, there are some hard realities to look forward to. The lesson of Icarus seems to be that, despite decades of effort, international sports governing bodies can do little to nothing about doping.

Since so many of these competitions get wrapped up in politics, the ability–or even willingness–of any given set of local officials to combat performance enhancing drug use can only extend so far as the local authorities will allow it. If the Olympics are held in Japan, or Canada, or Germany, or any other location generally (if perhaps mistakenly) deemed to be virtuous, then perhaps the games will be clean (or the cheaters will be bounced out). That seemed to happen in South Korea; those who flew home from PyeongChang with medals can be considered, for the most part, to have truly earned them.

But who knows for future competitions? One has to wonder what the authenticity, what the meaning, what the worth of international competitions to come will be, given the reality that there’s no way of knowing for sure that the people lining up on the other side of the field, or next in the gate, or beside you on the track, are playing a fair game. If there’s no way of ever knowing if the playing field is level, how can you appreciate the winners? Or accept the result if you lose?

It’s vexing, to be sure, but perhaps those Paralympians can point the way. After watching that Super G coverage, I’ve been very conscious of two things:

One, the athletes competing in PyeongChang now–at least those shown in the coverage, but I suspect all from top to bottom–appear to be happy simply to be competing, regardless of where they finish in the event.

And two, there is almost no one else paying attention to what they are doing. I have seen precious little mention of the Paralympics in the news outlets I visit on a daily basis. To be honest, make that no mention at all. Unlike the regular Olympics, attention is diverted to other matters, despite the fact that the Paralympic games are going on, right now, with “up to 670 athletes” from 50 countries, according to the Games’ website. It may be limited in scope compared to the regular games, but it’s still a fairly substantial event on the international stage.

And it’s being largely ignored.

Perhaps that is helpful to the Paralympians. Unlike the Olympic participants, the pressure’s off. Paralympic wins and losses aren’t as subject to scrutiny; certainly, they are not being infused with the significance that Olympic results are given–not just by the Olympians themselves, but also by those who are not part of the competition but hope to gain something from it nevertheless.

I can’t help but think that, perhaps, that is the solution to the kind of activities exposed in Icarus. What makes the Paralympians relatively obscure also gives them the liberty to appreciate their own efforts without falling into the trap of worrying about “losing.” Unlike the Icarus of Greek myth, the namesake of Fogel’s documentary, the Paralympians are (mostly, with exceptions no doubt) content to fly at their own level and achieve their best–while hoping to but not necessarily demanding to be the world’s best.

I’ve long been wary of that kind of advice. Those who dismiss the very concepts of “success” and “failure”–those who preach a gospel that claims that accomplishing whatever you can is good enough–are to some extent deluded. There is always a context for our actions, and when it comes to sport, “We play to win the game.” Only being satisfied with making tiny, incremental improvements in your own performance–whatever the context may be–is generally a recipe for being left behind, with real world consequences that can range from disappointing to dire.

If we choose to do anything at all, we have to strive; we must try to do better, and better than that, and if at all possible, to be the best. Certainly, I can’t see such a limiting philosophy as “fly at your own level” ever achieving much currency in the pro sports that are the bread and butter of this blog and any number of media outlets, athletic organizations, and fan base obsessions.

But when the next Olympics roll around in Tokyo in 2020, and beyond that, checking the medal count obsessively may be profoundly unwise. There simply won’t be any knowing whether or not the rest of the competition is on the level or not. For the athletes competing in those games, and those who cheer for them, doing their own best and being satisfied–perhaps even exultant–with that personal achievement, even if it’s a 22nd place finish, may be the best course of action, physically, mentally and emotionally.

As with the Paralympians, I suppose our Olympic athletes themselves have known that truth all along. Given the realities of the world we live in, it’s probably long since time for the rest of us to get on board with that same frame of mind.


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