Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Medals Count

Q: The Washington Post and other media outlets are keeping careful count of the number of medals the United States and other countries are winning at the Winter Olympics. Should so much attention be focused on the medal count? Is winning gold, silver or bronze a fair measure of Olympic success? What about the athletes who work for years to get to the Games, yet have no shot at winning a medal?

Upstairs in my spare bedroom, tucked into the corner of a shelf no one ever really sees, my sixth-grade volleyball trophy stands in silent triumph, its lithe figurine forever ready to strike the ball in the final winning serve.

Nearby, the archer on my camp archery trophy seems poised to launch an arrow toward the volleyball whenever it starts arcing toward the net, while the player atop the 8th-grade basketball trophy is about to slam dunk. Camp swimming medals and college athletic letters gather dust nearby.

Time was when I craved these trophies and medals, status symbols of youthful athletic success. At the summer camp my brothers and I attended for years, the competition for gold, silver or bronze medals in swimming was fierce, and winning a trophy in a field sport was the ultimate prize. We dared not spend eight full weeks at hard play without going home with some trinkets to show our prowess.

Dreams of Olympic medals have inspired generations of kids to run faster, swim harder, jump higher than ever before. Long before Lindsay Vonn (2010 gold medal in skiing) captured the imaginations of today's young girls, we idolized Olympic champions like Peggy Fleming (1968 gold medal in figure skating), Mary Lou Retton (1984 gold medal in gymnastics) Jackie Joyner-Kersee (three gold medals in track and field in 1988 and 1992) and Bonnie Blair (five gold medals in speedskating in 1988, 1992, 1994). For girls, in particular, with few female role models among professional athletes, Olympians stand out as the icons of women's athletic prowess.

Medals matter a great deal to the individual athletes as well as to the nations they represent. Depending upon the sport, a gold medal can lead to considerable earning power through endorsements -- no longer just the Wheaties box, today Olympic champions hawk everything from cold remedies to credit cards. But the gold standard is not quite equal among sports; snowboarding rules right now, so Shaun White can count on trading handsomely on his gold medal win. Curling champions might not earn so much.

With the Olympics serving as a peaceful surrogate to combat as a show of power among nations, the medal counts take on out-sized political importance. National egos demand victory in certain sports where defeat is considered a political disgrace. The Canadians hated being beaten by the U.S.A. hockey team on their home turf, and the ice dancing gold does not quite make up for the hockey loss. Russia is still mad that Plushenko's quadruple lutz was not good enough to beat America's Lysacek.

Unfortunately, the pressure to win gold has become so great that many exceptional athletic performances are held in disdain because they take silver or bronze, or don't make it to "the podium." Becoming a member of an Olympic team is a great success in and of itself. Winning any medal at the Olympic games is a heroic feat, in light of exceptional rosters of international competitors, and winning gold is a rare achievement for just a few. While applauding winners, we should also remember that all Olympians are great success stories.

What about those old trophies gathering dust in my guest room? Decades beyond my trophy days, I suppose I should box them up and put them in the attic, but somehow, that seems like a shame. They remind me of a time when anything seemed possible, when I could even dream of a shot at the Olympics. My athletic horizons are somewhat more finite today, but I can still dream of Olympian success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  February 25, 2010; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  Medals and meaning Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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