I was stunned to read this article in the Washington Post with the headline:
The dominance of Michael Phelps has crushed the Olympic dreams of these 27 swimmers
I clicked through mostly because I didn’t think the article was what I thought, based on the headline. I was mistaken. It was exactly what I thought: the article lamented the missed gold medals by swimmers who came in second to Michael Phelps. So I thought it was a joke … you know, an Onion story or a ha-ha or something. And there was a bit of a light tone about alternative histories and all that, but the point was made: maybe Michael Phelps should step aside so others can win gold medals.
You should read the article. Yes, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Yes, it made the point that Phelps has made a clear and enduring impact in the swimming world. But there was still an undercurrent of, “What if he wasn’t here? Shouldn’t others have a chance of winning, too?”
This is not the first time I’ve encountered the idea that those who excel in their field to the point of winning numerous competitions should refrain from entering, or that perhaps the sponsoring organization should limit entries so no one person can win more than XX awards. The first time I encountered this was when I was nominated for a RITA award from Romance Writers of America for Best Romantic Suspense … I think it was in 2007. It was my second nomination, a double nomination for SPEAK NO EVIL and SEE NO EVIL. Nora Roberts was also nominated. There was this grumbling that because Nora has won a gazillion RITAs that maybe she shouldn’t enter, or (worse) that the organization should prohibit authors from entering a category where they’ve won XX number of awards (I believe we were talking about 5 total awards.) In fact, one editor over drinks (not mine) said that Nora should step aside and give other people a chance of winning. Or that the organization should quietly disqualify her or some such nonsense.
I was floored. I responded that I was thrilled to be nominated with Nora Roberts, that if she was prevented from entering then I would never know (should I have won — I didn’t) whether I deserved the award or not. Nora Roberts is one of the all-around greatest romance and romantic suspense authors writing today. She wins often — but she doesn’t win every single time. I want my books to compete against all the other great romantic suspense novels. My award would mean less if Nora was prevented from entering because of some arbitrary fairness quota.
You can’t take out the best in a field and have a competition among the rest. That’s what the silver medal is for — or being about to say you were a nominee for Best Romantic Suspense.
Anyone remember the story about Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr? I read it in high school and it had a great impact on me. In a world that seeks equality, we have mistaken equality of opportunity with equality of results. All people are equal in the eyes of their Creator, and all people should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. But some people are better athletes, some people are better writers, some people are better singers. Talent isn’t distributed equally. It’s a combination of genetics, individual will and desire, work ethic, and yes, to a lesser degree, opportunity.
You shouldn’t put weights on the best ballerina on the planet so that other ballerinas don’t feel bad about themselves.
I think what bothered me the most about the Phelps article was the author made a point of highlighting who would have won gold medals if Phelps hadn’t competed … or if Phelps had been denied the medal because he had already won so many:
A total of 27 different swimmers would have seen their Olympic standing increase had Phelps not raced in individual events. But Team USA also has seven gold medals in relay events in which Phelps participated, and while it’s a little less clear what impact his absence would have there, those medals would likely be redistributed as well.
I do not honestly believe that any of those athletes who came in second or third to the greatest swimmer on the planet would want Phelps to be disqualified so that they can win. And just like someday I would love to win Best Romantic Suspense against a Nora Roberts book (heck, I’d just love to win anytime!), I’ll bet each of those athletes are thinking they want to beat Phelps. In fact, the competition makes them better swimmers. The drive to surpass the greatest swimmer of all time motivates other swimmers. I do not think lesser of myself or my writing because I’ve never won a RITA and Nora Roberts has won a gazillion. Nor should anyone else. Nora sets the bar for romance writers across the globe. We can all learn a lot from her: her work ethic, her drive, her ability to weave a good story over and over and over again. Writers can learn a lot from #1 international bestsellers like J.K. Rowling and Lee Child and James Patterson. What do they all have in common? They tell stories that people want to read, do it consistently, and do it well. Should we institute a limit to the number of weeks they can be #1 NYT bestsellers in order to give others a chance? Hell, no. Athletes can learn a lot from Michael Phelps — and Simone Biles, Madison Bumgarner, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, the list goes on and on. There will always be a record-setter.
As Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is unattainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
If “perfection” is Michael Phelps or Nora Roberts or whoever is currently “the best” in their field, chase them. They are doing something very right. And never should they be denied the accolades of their achievements, be it goal medals or book awards, because other people feel bad about their own accomplishments or don’t think multiple achievements is “fair.” While the reporter was highlighting Phelps’s achievements in light of those who haven’t won, it was a rather negative way to do so, in my opinion. I don’t think that any of those who came second to Michael Phelps think he didn’t deserve the gold medal.
I’ll admit, I’m not an Olympics nut. I watch the highlights, usually already knowing who won. My youngest daughter is a bit obsessed and recorded much of the Olympics, so I ended up watching a little bit of everything over the last few days. I don’t like how the media reports on the Olympics or how they cut up the televised version. (As an aside, I loved best mobile casinos this parody: “Congrats girl! Fiancé of former Miss California scoops 25th Gold Medal.”) But I appreciate excellence
Thoughts? I’m all ears. Or, rather, eyes 🙂