Essay: Man into machine

While there are many ways of playing a sonata or dancing a ballet, there is only one most efficient way of moving an arm through the water or a leg through the air.

Well, the Olympics are over and the Jewish state has not been totally disgraced. You can actually find it among the 87 countries whose athletes won medals. Don't despair as you scan the list. Number 83, behind (for alphabetical reasons) Afghanistan and Egypt, but ahead of Mauritius, Moldova, Togo and Venezuela, all of which won a single bronze, is Israel. The medalist, a young wind surfer named Shahar Zubari, has been widely hailed for saving Israel's honor at the same time that its other athletes have been castigated by local journalists for their poor showing. Why, even Kyrgyzstan won two medals, to say nothing of Uzbekistan with six, Azerbaijan with seven and Kazakhstan with 13! Can't the country that gave the world kibbutzim and falafel-in-a-pita do better? MY ADVICE is to calm down. It's all goyishe naches. Those are two Yiddish/Hebrew words that are difficult to translate. A short version of them might be: "The kind of things Jews should know better than to lose any sleep over." Not that a human being who, without even trying, can run a hundred meters faster than anyone else on Earth, let alone than it takes most people to get both legs out of bed and onto the floor when they wake up in the morning, isn't impressive. When you consider it, though, not only is he still slower than a horse, there are mornings when getting out of bed is harder. All kinds of reasons are given why Israel does not on the whole produce outstanding athletes. It does not invest enough money. It does not have state-of-the-art facilities. It does not have programs for selecting and training promising youngsters at an early age. It does not have enough physical education or athletics in its school system, etc. All this is true. But basically, it's all a way of saying that Israelis just don't think athletic success is that important. There are a few popular sports, like basketball, soccer or tennis, where an Israeli can make a name for himself by excelling. But pole vaulting? Gymnastics? The 100 meter butterfly? Goyishe naches! THIS STRIKES me, I must say, as a reasonable attitude. There may be in it, of course, some of the traditional Jewish disdain for physicality that Judaism has nothing to be proud of and that Zionism sought to change. On the whole, though, it reflects a perfectly sane sense of values. Sports are wonderful as long as they remain in their proper context, which is that of enjoyment, the cultivation of healthy bodies and the moral education of the young. (That there is no better form of moral education is known to anyone who has ever passed his childhood playing ball and other games, without the intrusion of adult supervision, in playgrounds and backyards.) They are less so when they involve relentlessly practicing six hours a day for years of a young person's lifetime, for the privilege of standing on a dais with a piece of gold around one's neck and a national anthem playing in the background. Of course, it's not only athletes who sacrifice their youths to success. The best performing musicians and dancers do it, too. But great violinists or ballet dancers, however steep a price they have to pay for the development of their talents, are learning to do something glorious that makes the human heart rejoice. Michael Phelps may make one say "Wow!" as he churns through the water, but there is little glory and no cause for joy in it. Usain Bolt can't outrun a horse? Neither can Michael Phelps outswim a dolphin - and yet neither a horse nor a dolphin can play the Kreutzer Sonata or dance Swan Lake. There's an important difference there. The greater a violinist or ballet dancer you are, the more humanly yourself you are; you are not competing any more against anyone, because no one else, no matter how good, can play or dance as you do. But modern competitive athletics are about being the same. Their object is to turn the human body into as efficient a machine as possible - and while there are many ways of playing a sonata or dancing a ballet, there is only one most efficient way of moving an arm through the water or a leg through the air. That's why I found watching the Olympics on TV boring. I felt that I was looking, not at one Michael Phelps, but at eight of them, one slightly better at what all were doing than the others. All were perfect; one was pluperfect. But imperfection is more interesting. The two most unforgettable moments of the entire Olympic games, I would imagine, were the two times that American relay teams dropped the baton. Israel doesn't need more Olympic medals. It does need - as most Western countries do - more kids out in the streets and parks, kicking and throwing balls around, running races with each other, learning that if you aren't fair to the other team, it will walk off the field and the game will be over. It's an old cliche about sports, but still a true one, that learning to lose is as important as learning to win. The Olympics are all about winning. Their symbol has become that fist-in-the-air snarl that has in recent years turned into the victory sign of athletes everywhere, as if the purpose of scoring a goal or clearing a bar were to feel like a gorilla. That's goyishe naches, and I for one couldn't care less that my country has come in 83rd at it. (The New York Sun)