Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Heroism vs. Awesomeness

UPDATE - 8/21/12: Thank you, US Weekly, for proving my point:
Now available on news stands and in the collective American psyche!

So the Olympics are over. This is probably a good thing, both for my sleep schedule and my fitness level. Yes, besides its sedentary nature, roughly four hours of nightly couch-sitting also inspired me to snack . . . the irony of watching world class, zero-body-fat athletes while gorging on popcorn and Twizzlers is not lost on me. For the last two weeks, I relished these things because I love the Olympics. And because I could. Unlike 2010, when I was in Afghanistan - something I discussed in my last post.

This year’s Olympics were everything I’d imagined, full of triumphs, disappointment, Michael Phelps, happy tears, tears of joy, very young-looking Chinese gymnasts, surprising upsets, patriotism, unity, and, as often happens, controversy.

One of the big stories of the Games was the discovery that any medals U.S. athletes bring home and the associated prize money are subject to taxation. The headlines were bold. The reactions, mixed. Sure, some said, their winnings are income and should be taxed accordingly. Others, like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asserted that Olympic athletes shouldn’t be penalized for representing their country. Sen. Rubio went so far as to introduce a bill that would exempt Olympians from being taxed on their winnings. 

Missy Franklin, with expensive hardware
On both sides, among the media, bloggers, and comment trolls, many called the athletes heroes. Many, like Yahoo sports blogger Chris Chase, compared them to the military.

In this article, Chase chastised the government, “you can't make an exception to athletes representing our country in the biggest event in the world? It's not unheard of: Military members are exempt from taxes when they're deployed in a combat zone.”

I don’t know if Sen. Rubio’s bill will pass, and frankly, I don’t care. My argument is not for or against taxation of Olympic winnings. My issue is the military being used as a measuring stick to assess athletic sacrifice and accomplishment.

This discussion provides interesting commentary on modern American priorities and perspectives. Perhaps the real question is not over earned benefits, but over our collective perceptions of what constitutes a hero.

We throw the word “hero” around a lot. I’m guilty, too. When I was little, I thought Julia Roberts was beautiful and talented; therefore, she was my hero. In high school had my own swimming heroes to go with my own Olympic dreams. That guy who proudly defied convention and rocked the purple Mohawk, studded leatherjacket, fishnet stockings and combat boots – for a minute last week, he was my hero. “Hero” has become so commonplace it’s almost lost its meaning.

So let me ask you: is athletic accomplishment true heroism, or closer to awesomeness?

As Sen. Rubio said in a statement, Olympic competitors “dedicate their lives to athletic excellence.” To make such a commitment is impressive and admirable. But dedicating one’s life to athletic excellence cannot be compared to dedicating one’s life to selfless service. Sacrificing in pursuit of Olympic dreams cannot be compared to sacrificing to protect a nation’s freedoms, to save a buddy’s life, to save a stranger’s life.

The Olympics is the biggest stage for athletes. For military members, the biggest stage is a life-and-death battle that can happen at any time, where bullets are flying, explosives are set, the humvee is on fire and the driver is trapped inside, a live grenade just landed a few feet away.

There are no improvised explosive devices buried in the sand of the beach volleyball court. Kayaking through whitewater is pretty badass, but it’s not on par with driving a humvee through an ambush to get the wounded back to base for emergency medical treatment. Running faster than anyone in the world is impressive, but not the same as running through live fire in 60+ pounds of body armor, having already been shot in your bulletproof vest, having already pulled a buddy to safety; running and rescuing another wounded buddy from two Taliban soldiers trying to drag him away, dragging him yourself back to safety while returning fire, and dressing his wounds, with no regard for your own life.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta
U.S. Army
The latter is what Salvatore Giunta did in 2007 in Afghanistan. He was awarded a Medal of Honor. But Guinta, like many military members, doesn’t see himself as a hero.

He told VanityFair, "I did what I did because in the scheme of painting the picture of that ambush, that was just my brush stroke. That’s not above and beyond. I didn’t take the biggest brush stroke, and it wasn’t the most important brush stroke. Hearing the Medal of Honor is like a slap in the face. I don’t think you know what I did. I didn’t do shit."

And the ChristianScience Monitor,“In this job, I am only mediocre. I’m average” . . . ““If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero,” he says. “So if you think that’s a hero – as long as you include everyone with me.”

If we’re talking numbers, an Olympic gold medal nets $25,000 in prize money - that’s about Guinta’s annual base salary while he was deployed to Afghanistan as an E-4. Giunta was 17, the same age as four-time gold medalist Missy Franklin, one of the “heroes” of the Games, when he swore an oath to defend his country. At 27, Michael Phelps has more Olympic medals than any athlete in history. At 27, Guinta is still haunted from watching his friends die.

People make sacrifices every day. Some sacrifice social life to work their way through college. Some sacrifice time with their children to put food on the table. Some sacrifice time and social life and other young-person aspirations to pursue athletic excellence. All sacrifices are noble. 

But we should be more careful about what we call heroic. 

1 comment:

  1. That was a very well thought post Lauren. I especially liked the part where you mentioned that there were not IEDs hidden on the beach volleyball courts at the olympics. I just lost a close friend to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan last week--a true hero. Thanks for rising above the controversy and helping to refocus our views.