For the last two nights my wife and I decided to bundle up and watch the primetime NBC broadcast of the Sochi Olympics. This year the Olympics are featuring a couple of new events including a sport called snowboarding slope-style which is essentially a snowboarding competition that involves both jump elements and rail elements. Each athlete tries different combinations of tricks on these elements in order to attain the highest score from a panel of judges.
The sport is quite entertaining to watch, but it wasn’t the actual competition that captivated my attention and left me in awe. I’ve played and watched sports for long enough to have seen most things under the sun, but what shocked me during this high stakes competition was what transpired between the competitors during the event. The only way I can describe the environment was that it was full of celebration.
Now this makes sense to me if you have just won. Everyone loves winning and the emotional cocktail that is a sporting victory is a potent party mixer. Most sporting celebrations are filled with a certain kind of relief that is unique and different from what I witnessed between these Olympic athletes. This relief is heavy and exhausting, it is an exhale not unlike passing a final exam. The celebration on the faces of these snowboarders was not filled with exhaustion though, it was filled with freedom and pure pleasure.
Every single time a rider would come down the hill, whether they nailed their run or crashed, they would be greeted with hugs and congratulations from all the other competitors. One rider (from an opposing country) ran out to celebrate her competitor who just beat her to win the Gold. That doesn’t happen in the sports I know…disappointment, regret, and shame happens when you are defeated in the sports I know.
In the major sports that dominate the American cultural landscape there are clear messages that are given about competition.
Second place means first loser.
Nobody remembers the first loser.
Win at all costs. Etc…
In the sports I played, if someone celebrated the victory of another they would have some serious questions to answer in the locker room. Did they really care at all? Obviously if they are okay congratulating the other team they must not have really given their all…lower your head and think about how to make sure you never fail like this again. This is what I remember. You either get to exist in the minds of others or you don’t…this is your fight. You will be deemed valuable depending on your performance.
As I watched the strange, beautiful, counter-cultural display that was slope style I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like to feel celebrated regardless of outcome. These riders were not burdened as they flew through the air. They didn’t seem concerned with proving their existential value or inherent worth through their performance. From the look on their faces throughout the competition all they seemed to care about was having fun. You know…fun…that thing that used to highlight the reason we played sports? Most of us got to have it for a while until some adult told us sports were really about winning. “What is important is that you win, Knox…nothing else matters.” I believed this and have let it guide my play ever since, but something about watching these snowboarders reminded me of another reality.
Believe it or not, I actually used to be pretty good at slope style myself. We didn’t have snow in South Carolina but we had sand and rails and big jumps! Every day at recess we would all run to the playground to begin to create our routines. We incorporated twists and turns, grinds and grabs, jumps and slides. We were all really talented, come to think of it pretty much everything we did on those sand hills was awesome. We were young and we were free from pressure and performance and the demons of others shame. We were alive…oh so alive…and full of reasons to celebrate!
This is what I know of celebration, it is always sweeter to be celebrated when you haven’t done anything to deserve it. Or said in a different way, when others applaud you regardless of the outcome because the object of celebration is you…not what you have done. In this reality your inherent value always outshines your best and worst performance because you are what is glorious. You.
I long for the day when I can allow the joy of play to find its way, once again, into the fields of my heart. When I can celebrate myself and others regardless of the quality of our play because we, God’s glorious beloved children, are worth celebrating.