Saturday, August 1, 2009

Annals of Well-Used Lives, I: Michelle Kwan Chooses Grad School Over Olympics

Michelle Kwan, nine times U. S. Figure Skating champion, twice an Olympic medalist (silver and bronze), announced on Friday, July 31, that she was passing on preparing this fall for the Winter Olympics, and instead would enter graduate school. (Read about it here and here.) Nancy Armour's article for the Associated Press quoted Kwan as stating the following:

Skating will always be a part of me .... But in the bigger picture of my life, I have always wanted to find a career that will allow me to make a positive contribution and difference in the world.

Kwan begins a masters degree in international affairs at Tufts University in the Fall. For the last three years, she has served as a U.S. public diplomacy envoy on the behalf of the State Department, and this experience seems to have encouraged her to move in this direction.

Yes, I know that the cynics out there will say that Kwan, who has suffered injuries in recent years and is now 29 years old, might have looked at her Olympic chances and considered them a long shot anyway. I prefer to take her at her word. Either way, though, let's give some thought to this act and its meaning, not for Kwan, but for America.

As a society, American culture is obsessed with professional sports (and, make no mistake about it, the Olympics are essentially professional sports under certain restrictions). To judge from the media, it has occured to very few people to point out that very little of any lasting value has resulted from the world of professional sports.

Oh, sure, the people who participate in professional sports can become fabulously wealthy, and some of those who've done so have done good and charitable things with their wealth--more power to them. However, truth be told, Americans aren't remotely as concerned with sports figures' charitable activities as they are with their athletic performance.

And we so love to watch those performances, don't we?

Whether it's the weekly ball games, or national or world competitions, or the weeks of Olympic competition, we love to watch those performances. We identify with the athletes; their victories are our victories, their pain our own.

But what difference does any of this make, at all?

Is one sick child made well by a goal or a block? Is our community any closer to fixing poverty because someone did the breaststroke in record time? Does even the most breathtaking, run-up-the-wall-and-jump catch, deep in the outfield, do a thing to better education or literacy, anywhere in the world?

Of course not. It's not supposed to. It's essentially entertainment for the spectators, and a massive paycheck plus the achievement of a personal goal for the athlete. And that's it.

Few have been better at their sport than Michelle Kwan is at hers. But now she wants her life to make a difference. Implicitly, she is stating that her athletic pursuits really were not making a difference in the world. And they weren't!

The spotlight will be off Michelle Kwan now. Nobody gives endorsement money for international relations. There's no standing on the podium while they play your national anthem and give you a medal, no matter how well you handle a diplomatic crisis. There's no stadium watching as you try to achieve peace and prosperity in a troubled world.

But somewhere, inside, I think she'll experience the satisfaction that comes of knowing that you've tried to leave the world a better place than when you found it. Years from now, when she is an accomplished diplomat with some achievements under her belt, I hope that she tours the schools of America and tells the story of how the athletic hero walked away from it all, to really make a difference. Directing your life to a greater purpose: it's a lesson that a lot of children need to hear.

A lot of adults, too.

Michelle Kwan's choice to make a difference is definitely On the Mark.

[The image of Michelle Kwan performing her signature spiral at a practice session of the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles was taken on January 8, 2002 by Kevin Rushforth, who has made it available for use here through the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. The image was obtained through Wikipedia.]

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