Life, death, and the Olympics

diver_wu.jpg Dying and dead grandmothers are in the news at the Olympics in London, leading to questions about whether the romance and media-fed story lines mask a darker side of athletics.

China diver Wu Minxia got what she wanted — a gold medal. What she doesn’t have is a grandmother. Hers died a year ago but her parents and others never told her until after she won her medal this week. They wanted her to stay focused on her athletics and not be distracted by family matters.

“We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong entirely to us, I don’t even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness,” her father told the Shanghai Morning Post, a testament to the win-at-all-costs mentality of some Olympians, their countries, and their families.

That’s something to remember as the TV coverage continues to show as many parents in the crowd as the Olympians in the pool.

Meanwhile, New Zealand rower Peter Taylor revealed his grandmother died on the eve of the Olympics.

“I had an open chat with her before I left and we knew she may not be around when I got back and if that happened she said keep going and do your thing,” he said.

Who’s the more impressive Olympian: the one who won a gold but is too fragile to be distracted by life, or the one who faces the realities of life head-on and competes anyway?

(Photo: Al Belo/Getty Images)

  • Jim Shapiro

    “Who’s the more impressive Olympian: the one who won a gold but is too fragile to be distracted by life, or the one who faces the realities of life head-on and competes anyway?”

    Do automatons have grandparents?

  • Chris

    “…the win-at-all-costs mentality of some Olympians. …”

    Bob – You would be stunned (and I hope appalled) at the level of insanity even junior-level kids in sports like gymnastics go through. Seven- and eight-year old kids drop all other activities to concentrate on gymnastics 20 hours a week, on top of the expense and scheduling issues for the families. And there are literally thousands of kids like this just in Minnesota. I was never so happy as when my daughter decided to drop competitive gymnastics at age 11.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I don’t think we can fairly say if Wu Minxia is “too fragile.” Her parents made the choice, not her.

    However, I agree that the “win at all costs” mentality is troubling, no matter which country the athlete represents.

  • Lindsay

    If other people shielded her grandmother’s death from her, then that isn’t Wu Minxia’s fault – it’s her parents and family for not telling her about it and thinking she’s fragile. They made that decision for her. Who knows if she supports it or is now pissed that they didn’t tell her.

  • David G

    I’ve heard of withholding that type of news DURING a competition, but never for a whole year.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob Moffitt and Lindsay – You said what I believe.

    Thanks for the reminder to be compassionate towards individuals, regardless of what the circumstances that they’re in might symbolize. :-)

  • kennedy

    This is somewhat a question about cultural values. In the US, individuality and freedom are prized. China seems to favor individual sacrifice for greater good. They probably consider it selfish and wrong for an athlete like Michael Phelps to take time off rather than fully applying his talents for the honor of his country. Being an American, I think the Chinese prioirities are out of balance. But I have a certain respect for single minded focus on achieving a goal.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Kennedy – What is complicated is that this incident goes against the Chinese cultural value placed on family and honoring the elderly.