No parallel for Olympic excellence

PHOTO: France Olympique, FLICKR CC-BY-NC-SA
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo unfold unlike any held before. Delayed until 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic, new variants of the virus surge across the globe. Thus, thousands of athletes from around the world compete in front of mostly empty stands. 

It must seem deflating to work tirelessly for a young lifetime to achieve a goal, only to labor for an audience of security guards, service workers, and disinterested passers-by. But I also know a lot of local musicians. Somehow they keep going under remarkably similar circumstances.

You have to be a different breed to try to be the best among many.

Most of us never achieve excellence. Frankly, few really try. Pretty good is fine for most folks. I like to think I’ve written some excellent columns in my life. Some are trash, that’s true. But most of them have been something else entirely: fine. Not good. Not bad. Just fine. Fish wrappers. Future dust. 

Last year my family build a raised deck at the hunting shack so we could walk over the muddy spot between the cabin and sauna. I don’t know that much about carpentry, but it struck me how a mediocre structure completely fulfilled our needs. We missed a few studs and dropped a lot of screws below the boards. Who’s upset? We also use a full window door to light the outhouse. This is no place for Platonic ideals.

But Olympic athletes don’t think that way. They can’t. The yawning gap in skills between any one of them and most other humans on the planet calls into question the viability of our species.

Gymnasts generate enough energy in their legs to spin mid-air like astronauts in space. Olympic runners could merge onto an interstate highway faster than most Iron Rangers trying to find the Mall of America. Even last-place divers pierce the water with a smaller splash than a hotel pool fart.

For the good of humanity, these people should not be allowed to mate with office workers who wear stretchy dress pants. 

How is it possible? 

Well, these athletes are physically gifted. But more than that, they all wanted to be excellent. That’s the quality banging around the human species that causes so much progress and peril.

The desire for excellence goes beyond instinct. It’s the product of people who want to leave a legacy. Perhaps too much of this thirst for greatness is a sin. Some might become tyrants or boors in pursuit of glory.

But watch the tenacity of teenage swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui as he stunned the favorites to win the first gold medal for Tunisia in the 400 meter freestyle. Then you see the point. 

Seeing excellence like this is inspiring. It reminds us that we don’t have to numb ourselves with wine and Netflix, social media and annual vacations to the same place somewhere else. 

I mean, statically speaking, most of us will do that exactly. But maybe some of us won’t. There is more to life than the obvious comforts of our familiar surroundings. We are part of something far larger. As much as modern life sometimes seems a hopeless grind, a hopeful vein of possibility may be found in the rock.

This year I finally feel old and fat enough to give up any notion of the kind of physical excellence that Olympic athletes exhibit. I’m never going to have enough muscles where I have to slap them to wake them up before swimming faster than a 40-horse boat motor.

That’s OK. But excellence sleeps within all of us. In all things, not just sports. With effort, we can wake up our true potential at any time.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, August 1, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. “Even last-place divers pierce the water with a smaller splash than a hotel pool fart.” – I think this may be the best line you have ever written and hits a little close to home. LOL

  2. Lofty ideals to be stretched for first require an awareness of ourselves as not there yet. And a willingness to struggle to get there. I fail to see either of those in most people on the Iron Range. Most seem to think they’ve already arrived. And are fine,thank you, just as they are. and mind your own business.

  3. Great points. We like watching different sports each games to see all of the things people dedicate themselves to. (This year it was canoeing and kayaking.) Earlier in the summer my son went to a regional cross-country ski camp for skiers who have competed well in the region. They got to have a Zoom call with the head of the US ski team. He told them that if they were good enough to qualify for the camp, they were physically good enough to someday compete internationally — that the hard work from here on out is the mental work of pushing himself beyond what he’s done before. I’m not sure if he has big dreams in the sport, but he sets ambitious goals every year and he beats them.

  4. Joe musich says

    Time for the Things of the Day Olympics….no doubt….I am amazed at what things in life “people” can accomplish if they are are curious, willing, and lucky on a level playing field. And speaking of farts haha hilarious The evolution of Walter the Farting dog from fact to widely read fiction being a case example. Always aim higher.

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