The Olympics are starting to wind down. We have all witnessed fast people (runners and swimmers), strong people (shot putters and weightlifters), all-around athletes (basketball players and gymnasts), and people with amazing endurance (marathon runners and those who watch Bob Costas for hours on end). The dedication shown by these athletes as they set aside all else to reach the very pinnacle of their chosen sport is unbelievable. The entire Olympiad is a testament to the over-arching ambition present in the human race. Something I completely do not have.
I realize the Olympics are populated by individuals from all over the world, but I think this drive to be the best at something is taken to the greatest extreme in the United States. I am not just saying this because it was American Michael Phelps who won so much gold it caused him to keep looking over his shoulder in fear of a bowler hat wearing oriental assassin. The preceding sentence was not some racist dig, but rather an overly obtuse reference to the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. Remember Oddjob trying to knock over Fort Knox? Anyway, everywhere you look in America things are only seen to be truly valuable if they are the best.
At the end of every calendar year newspapers and magazines are awash in Ten Best Lists: the Ten Best Movies, the Ten Best Television Shows, the Ten Best Books, even the Ten Best Weird Band Names (my new favorite is Lady Chatterley’s Hamster). What’s next The Ten Best Entrees Made Mostly out of Vegetables Which Can Grow Larger than Your Head? (Hey, that might be a good name for a band.)
I have no problem if Usain Bolt wants to push himself to run 100 meters like he is being chased by rabid cheetahs on meth. (Digression: The only name better than Usain Bolt for a sprinter might be Usain Spastic Colon.) My concern is this continuing drive to be the best will lead to more people doing things which are dangerous and/or stupid to get there.
The use of steroids is the top example of the perversion of becoming the best. Some guys want to hit a baseball farther than anybody else, which means somebody named Steinbrenner is willing to give them more money than oil company executives spend on campaign contributions. It doesn’t matter that taking steroids not only causes leather wrapped spheroids to fly out of ballparks, but also causes one’s left ventricle to thicken leading to cardiac arrhythmia, one’s liver to malfunction, and even a wicked case of acne, as long as they can whack that ball.
In the kinder gentler days of the fifties if a guy wanted to be the best baseball player he didn’t ingest fake testosterone. He just sold his soul to the devil who looked a lot like My Favorite Martian. The chief side effect of that was Gwen Verdon in silk stockings danced around you. Compare the side effects and it’s no contest. (For the people in the audience who are completely confused put Damn Yankees on your Netflix queue.)
This preoccupation with the idea of the “best” can have other drawbacks. This is most obvious to me in regards to technology. Think about the world before cell phones. In order to have people call you you had to be near a fixed point phone. Now the technology is such a device, not any bigger than a deck of cards, can be strapped to your belt making it possible for your boss to get in touch with you in the car, in the park, in the bathroom to ask you a question about that big presentation which you did not finish because you spent the last three hours at the office playing internet Scrabble.
This land of ours was built on a precept of individual achievement. We are supposed to be the place where anybody can grow up to be president. (Unfortunately, that has been proven true on more than one occasion.) Constantly striving to be the best drove the actions of many famous Americans. What I would like to point out is the Constitution also says the “pursuit of happiness” is important to us. Well, the first synonym of “happy” my computer volunteers is “content”. Content can mean satisfied with things as they are. I think there are times we should pursue leaving things as they are in order to make things the best.
What is my proof? Anne Murray’s recording of The Monkees song Daydream Believer.