The 2004 Olympics have come to an end. Melissa and I are not complete Olympic junkies, but we watched and followed closely numerous athletic events, as we do every four years. I’m not much of a sports fan, last competed in an athletic contest when I was in junior high (cross-country: I was pretty good at running away from people), and know very little about most of the events we watch. But the intensity and quality of these men and women, and of what they can make their bodies do, is often compelling. It’s captivating to watch Australian Ian Thorpe’s long arms pierce the surface of the water on his way to yet another gold medal, or watch Ladji Doucoure of France power his way through the 110 hurdles, hitting every single one and yet desperately stay in contention until tumbling forward over the last one at the very end. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, indeed.
Melissa particularly enjoys many of the rhythmic or precision events: gymnastics, diving, etc. I fixate on different contests randomly, just depending on who or what catches my eye or interest: an unusual competitor, a possible record-breaker, etc. Pole vault is not one of those events that have usually attracted my attention, but it did this year. One member of our ward, Mark Calvin, came to Jonesboro to train under Earl Bell, a local legend and former world champion pole vaulter, in hopes of making the Olympic team. He didn’t. One of his training partners, Derek Miles, did make the team, ultimately placing seventh in the final competition.
Mark is a soft-spoken guy, and doesn’t come off like your typical muscle-bound athlete. (If there is, in fact, such a thing as a “typical muscle-bound athlete”; my very use of the phrase betrays me as suffering the same prejudice which affects almost all intellectuals and similar nerdy-types: an near unshakable conviction that anyone who chooses to dedicate themselves to their body is inferior to those enlightened few who dedicate themselves to cultivating their minds. (Note: I believe there clearly is a sense in which learning philosophy is superior to pole vaulting, but explaining exactly why that is so is neither easy nor especially clear-cut, and the fact is that most intellectuals and intellectuals-to-be don’t attempt to make any such explanation, either to ourselves or others; mostly, we just sullenly trade cracks about how obviously unjust and screwed-up it is that this world rewards Shaquille O’Neal with millions while those of us tending the heritage of Western civilization toil in obscurity. But I digress.)) The point is, for someone who had trained for more than a decade to compete at the very highest level of his particular field, Mark has always seemed to me surprisingly easy-going and humble. Of course, maybe that’s simply because pole vaulting isn’t exactly the sort of sport likely to appeal to those looking to reap financial rewards or achieve worldwide celebrity. Basically, if you’re going to do what Mark does, you’ve got to really love running down a track, thrusting a flimsy pole into the ground, and then pushing and straining one’s body upwards and over, 17 or 18 or 19 ft. in the air. Which Mark most certainly did.
I saw Mark at church the day after he returned from an open competition in Indiana, his last shot at earning himself a chance to be picked to travel to Athens. He didn’t make it, his jumps falling a couple of inches short. It was fast and testimony meeting that day, and he stood up, and quietly talked for a while about his long night drive back from Indiana, and how he wondered what he was going to do next. “I wondered what was really important to me,” he said, “because I realized that everything that I’d been telling people for years I was aiming for had just fallen apart.” As I watched him speak quietly into the microphone, I thought how little difference there was between an athlete and a scholar, a factory worker or a lawyer, any and all of whom have dreams that they work long and hard and desperately for which, in the end, may easily slip through their fingers. Mark’s wife Katie stood up later in the meeting, and bore one of those testimonies which intellectuals of a certain bent (read: me) find so often sickly sweet: about how good a man her husband was, how proud she was of him, how grateful she was to be part of his dream. Knowing him, and knowing them, made it sound gracious and loving, in the best way, to me.
I used to wonder what kind of social life resurrected or heavenly beings enjoy; specifically, whether they play any games. I can quite clearly remember deciding, at some point during my arrogant nerdy years, that while some athletic contests–because of the way they magnified and gloried in the human form–were celestial material, most others–like football, obviously–were crude and would in the end disappear. I hardly ever wonder about those things now, and when I do, I suspect that most all our works, athletic or scholarly or otherwise, will be found wanting and will perish (and we won’t give them a second thought) come judgment day. In which case, why not try to push your body into something which can move swiftly, leap high, and swim strong, if that happens to be your gift? Who is to say the “knowledge” which Mark’s body has given him–a knowledge of both failure and success, hope and disappointment–won’t to be of equal help and worth to him in the resurrection as my own?
Well, I’ll stick with philosophy anyway. But Mark and Katie are planning on sticking around and sticking with what they know too; the Olympics may be a lost cause, but Mark has a decent job (he works for a janitorial contracting company), and they like Jonesboro, and he loves to pole vault, and so who knows? Maybe he’ll get his height back if he did a few things different. There’s always the American championships next year. The media people always try to make you believe in various “Olympic dramas,” but I’ve always just treated it as pure spectacle myself. That’ll probably be how I treat Bejing 2008 too–though maybe, thanks to Mark, next time around I’ll see just a little bit more.