Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Ultimate Athlete

The US has now played England twice. The first time, England lost, this second time they only managed a draw. Sooner or later they have to offer some respect, even if begrudgingly and it saddens them to do so. :-)

I don't have a working TV so today's US/England match may be the only one i watch (this one at my sister's) during the entire World Cup, but it was a great way to start the event. Yes, they stumbled into some luck, but the US squad seemed to want it more during the second period. All of them are amazing athletes.

George Sheehan had this to say about these amazing people in his book Running To Win:

The Ultimate Runner

The athletic experience consists of three parts: the training, which the Greeks called askesis; the event, or agon; and the aftermath, which the Greeks termed arete, which can be variously translated as "excellence" or "vigor" or "virtue." The goal of Greek education was to create a citizen-soldier. This education, said Plato, was what develops virtue from childhood, what makes one able to rule the state or defend it.

The ultimate aim is self-mastery. If we are to dominate events, we must first dominate ourselves. Self-rule comes naturally to the athlete. Training, or askesis, brings with it the virtues of prudence and moderation. The lifestyle of athletes conforms to the laws of the body. "Breaking training" is physical sin. When I became a runner, I became my body and accepted its laws. This does not, of course, go unrewarded. Athletes perform at the peak of their powers.


But self-mastery goes beyond preparation. The race becomes the agon, where the self is developed. "The race to be run, the victory to be won, the defeat that one risked suffering," writes Michel Foucalt about the Greeks, "these are processes and events that took place between oneself and oneself. The adversaries the individual had to combat were not just with him and close by; they are part of him."

How well the runner knows that. At first, it appeared that I was fighting hills and terrain, heat and humidity, and the distance I had to race. But it was soon apparent that these were not my opponents. My opponent is me — the real me who would let this cup pass, the true self who is willing to settle for "a good try," and not the last desperate and painful and revealing plunge into the black hole of who I am.


Therein lies the final part of the athletic experience — the transformation of the self brought about by these learning experiences. The deposition into the subconscious of the good news about the self — and entry into the world of William Blake, where we become "chariots of fire" and for which the best word is "exultation." We now are what we became in the race and ready for whatever the day brings.

What the day brings, as everyone learns sooner or later, is recurrent challenge. The agon is a daily experience. The Greek philosopher Epictetus told us that almost two centuries ago: "If anything laborious or pleasant, glorious or inglorious, be presented to you, remember now is the contest, now are the Olympic Games, and they cannot be deferred."

There will never be a day when we won't need energy, dedication, discipline, and the feeling that we can change things for the better.

While Sheehan is writing about runners (the best type of athlete, if i have to say so myself), what he says is true of the athletes in every sport. But, more than that, and more importantly, it applies to each and every one of us — it is those who approach life with the understanding that success begins with the transformation of the self, and eventual self-mastery, that truly come to terms with Life. Not just living but Life itself.

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