Professional Opinion / Win or Lose, Our Athletes Deserve Respect

With our culture's focus on winning, we have lost sight of the hard work, discipline and perseverance Olympians represent.

Many years ago, before the age of television, cultural heroes were charismatic leaders, wise philosophers, courageous fighters or gifted athletes. They were people with rare gifts who studied, worked hard, invented, created, fought bravely or competed enthusiastically.

Most of our cultural heroes now are people who have succeeded in getting onto reality shows like Big Brother or Beauty and the Geek - certainly not because of their wisdom, courage or impressive athletic ability.

Thus the heroes of our day, the shapers of public opinion, the people whom our children want to have their picture taken with on the street, are shallow, harsh and provocative people. Victory has become a sacred goal, and the best path to it is always the shortest, quickest and not always the most ethical.

As a former Olympic athlete, I get into a lot of "Olympic small talk" these days. Some of it (not much ) is interesting, some of it is disappointing and some of it is truly infuriating. The infuriating part is when the conversation turns to money wasted on our athletes, the resources that are poured into sports in which we have no chance of winning.

I ask myself: Who is responsible for the public's feeling of disappointment? It's natural to be disappointed when you expect something and don't get it. But it is not natural to show someone disrespect. It is not natural to show contempt. It is not natural to call an athlete who worked and trained for years a loser or a nothing, no matter what his score or whether he won or lost.

The Israeli criteria for getting onto the Olympic team are considered among the toughest. In order to be eligible to compete in the Olympics, Israeli athletes must train and reach the highest levels in the world. This means years of training, a strict nutritional regimen, hours of raising the bar higher and higher, beyond one's physical and mental capabilities. Every single athlete, man or woman, who succeeds in reaching this amazing event - the Olympic Games - is a gifted athlete. These athletes devote their bodies, souls and lives to becoming the best at what they do. These are boys and girls, men and women, who eat, drink, breathe and dedicate their souls to one lofty goal: to win an Olympic medal for Israel (and, of course, for themselves ) - preferably gold.

The Olympic athletes are part of us. They represent the country at the start of the games, as well as during and after them. With the same pride that we watched them march in the opening ceremony, we must welcome them when they come back home.

The power of the media in our lives is increasing. We live in a time when programs with high ratings, such as Survivor, completely wipe out the relevance of the journey. Such programs, in which victory is an end that justifies the means and in which the "winners" march proudly on their path to victory, are replete with humiliation, deception, intrigues and lies.

It is precisely at such a time that we need to put the emphasis on the path - when the path is a worthy one. And the path of the Olympic athletes is worthy indeed. It is a path full of positive values such as self-discipline, determination, daring, achievement, excellence, perseverance, love of athletics and yes, respect too.

These are values that I am sure every single one of us would like to see our children brought up with. For me, they are values that represent Arik Ze'evi and his participation in the Olympic Games, and his score does not eclipse them even a little. When I look at him, I see a true cultural hero, the kind that I would like my daughters to appreciate and admire.

Results are important, and the test of results is important in athletics, as in life. At the same time, we should remember that the path we take toward those results is every bit as important. We live in a time when we need to bring back the importance of the path, and when we have such a wonderful opportunity as this to "celebrate the path," we should highlight it as much as possible and make those who walk it our cultural heroes, just like in the past.

The writer, a former member of the Israeli Olympic sailing team, represented Israel in the Olympic Games in Atlanta and Sydney.