One of the downsides of being a Little League president is that I fall behind on the latest subjects of water cooler chat. I didn’t see President Obama’s interview with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show until last night. (Thank goodness for DVR.) This is when the president made that infamous crack about the “Special Olympics” and his bowling score.
I’m sure that a Special Olympian could have beaten Obama’s bowling score by a wide margin, and a Special Olympic basketball player wouldn’t be afraid to give him “hard fouls.”
But the faux pas isn’t just a commentary about Special Olympics. It shows some misconceptions we have about the nature of sports and competition.
The first myth is the Special Olympians are not competitive. If you’ve ever seen the Special Olympics (or Little League’s own Challenger division), you know this isn’t true. Special Olympians are just as competitive as any athlete, but the things they are competitive about are different than what most people think is “competition”. Special Olympians enjoy the sense of accomplishment — doing something they couldn’t do before. They enjoy the thrill of taking part. They appreciate the cheers of their fans and support of their coaches and teammates. In many respects, the Special Olympics is purer and much closer to the true ideal of competition than many mainstream sports.
The leads to the second myth — the result is more important than the effort. It’s admirable that the president, with the challenges he is facing, would take time off from his busy schedule to enjoy a game of bowling. How many of us, with far less stress and responsibility, would prefer just sitting on the sofa watching TV. In sports, we have no control over the outcome of a game. Sometimes, we can face a far superior competitor, play under poor field conditions, or have inaccurate or biased officiating. In those situations, we can still be proud of the effort we put in.
For example, my son’s team recently lost a game 12-3 — a major defeat in most people’s assessment. But the team was still proud and happy because they played better than they had before. They made a couple of double plays and a few close plays that were called safe. They left the field feeling confident that they can play better and win next time.
The motto of the Special Olympics is “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” This is a powerful message that all athletes should follow.