Learning from the Olympics

Ted Williams maintained steadfastly, and loudly, that the hardest single act in sports was hitting what a major league pitcher could throw. His reasoning had something to do with the challenge of hitting a round object squarely with a cylindrical club.

Partly because Ted Williams did not suffer disagreement gladly, and partly because a couple of generations of sportswriters celebrated him immoderately, a lot of people have embraced his assertion.

But what about turning a series of back flips on a balance beam, launching yourself into space so that the world spins kaleidoscopically around you, and then landing — boy-yoing — like a perpendicular jack knife on springy mat as if gravity were not an issue and smiling as if grace came easily?

What about doing that while knowing that you get just one chance, that unlike the baseball player, whose trusty credo when he's goofed has always been "we'll get 'em tomorrow," you'll have no opportunity to make up for a bad day unless you can make the team again in four years?

Depending on your own favorite Olympic sport, you'll have your own remarkable achievements to celebrate: the extraordinary conditioning and endurance of the water polo players, the resilience of the swimmers, and beyond that the equanimity of all the athletes in all the sports where everything depends on as little as a few hundredths of a second, or, more maddeningly, what a judge has seen or failed to notice regarding how precisely a toe is pointed, or who has fouled whom and exactly where.

It is all so hard, and the great gift of the athletes is that they make so much of it look so natural, with the form their muscles have learned and the confidence they've achieved through grueling work.

I kind of wish I'd thought more about the marvelous, wide range of astonishing, all-but-undoable things accomplished athletes regularly do back when I was still playing ball, rather than just assuming that Ted Williams was right. It might have made hitting feel much easier.

This program aired on August 21, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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