There's a lot more to life than winning the gold

February 28, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

Got home late, brought the weekly paper in from the front lawn and began reading the interview with Eric Jackson.

Jackson was a 1992 Olympian and hopes to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as part of the U.S. white-water slalom team.

"He says he will do anything it takes to go for the Olympic gold medal," the article said.

And then the article said his wife, Kristine, "understands that dream."

"In a survey sent by the [U.S. Olympic] committee they found that Olympic hopefuls would rather win the gold medal and only live a year afterwards than live a full life without it," she said.

I got too depressed to read any further.

Maybe it was because a few hours before I had stood on a stage at Randallstown High and shaken hands with each of the 69 new inductees to the National Honor Society. Then I gave a little speech about excellence and striving for greatness.

And now, reading about how some young people would rather get the gold and live only for a year, I realized it was the wrong speech.

I realized I should have talked about what is more important than greatness.

This is not what anyone wants to hear right now. This is not the story emphasized at the recent Olympics. At the Olympics, the story never varies. It is the great American soap opera: overcoming adversity to triumph.

As Dan Jansen did. Dan Jansen had to win in Norway. His sister had died of leukemia on Feb. 14, 1988, the day Dan Jansen skated at the Calgary Olympics. He failed twice. He tried again in 1992 and failed twice again.

And now, in Norway, he tried once more and failed and then, in his final Olympic race, he triumphed. He got the gold.

Was I happy when he did? I was delirious. I choked up. This is, after all, the way life is supposed to be.

But what if Jansen had failed to get the gold? And faced, instead, a life without it?

What if he had turned out to be another Ron Karnaugh?

Remember him? In 1992, Ron Karnaugh, his father, mother and two sisters flew from Maplewood, N.J., to the Barcelona Olympics where Ron would swim.

At the opening ceremonies, his father had a heart attack and died. The family was grief-stricken, but all decided Ron must compete.

And six days later, Ron went for the gold. The gun sounded, Ron hit the water, surged to an early lead . . . and faded to sixth.

And that was that. He did not get his gold. The gold that most Olympic athletes would trade the rest of their lives for.

Instead, I am happy to report, Ron Karnaugh decided to go to medical school.

Maybe he will save a life someday, a life that would not have been saved had he won a gold medal.

Maybe not. It doesn't matter. Because Ron Karnaugh already has his victory.

I got up from the couch, went over to the bookshelf and got down my battered copy of the first hardcover book I ever bought: "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" by Joan Didion, published in 1968.

I turned to the essay called "On Self-Respect." It begins:

"Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself."

Didion remembered the day at age 19 when she failed to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. "This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it," she wrote.

And though she recognized, even at that age, that the tragedy lacked real stature, she also realized she had lost something.

"I lost the conviction," she wrote, "that lights would always turn green for me."

But this was eventually replaced by something better.

"To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything," she wrote. "To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves -- there lies the great, singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home."

A gold medal around one's neck is a wonderful thing.

But it is not better than a life -- a full life -- well spent.

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