Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Go for the Bronze

Now that the Winter Olympics are over, and Bode Miller, Sasha Cohen, and other Americans made their usual sorry display of Americanness to the world, I will ply you with what I consider my greatest contribution to society, and it is not even this rapturous prose that passes before your eyes as you procrastinate working on that office project, divorcing your husband, assassinating an evil dictator, or writing the Great American Novel you’ve been talking about for 20 years.

Let us hearken back to the summer of 1984. I was a college student on break, thought the world irredeemably stupid, and deeply resented having to spend my summer with my parents in the Bookfraud household. Meanwhile, the Summer Olympics was taking place in Los Angeles.

A role model for us all

This was the Olympics that the Soviet Union boycotted, as a mature gesture of nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah after the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. (Which had followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which has led us to the beautiful state of world harmony we live in today.) Because the Soviets and the rest of the Iron Curtain weren’t competing, the United States had an easy go of it in events like fencing, cycling, and gymnastics, events in which Americans would usually finish in 87th place between Bulagrastan and France.

“Team USA” was winning gold medals everywhere. So I, a cynical college student who saw no value in anything mainstream, was subjected to an endless effluent stream of the following headlines: “America's Gold Rush!”; “Scoring Olympic Gold!”; and, most obviously and sickening, “USA Goes for the Gold!”

I worked as a counselor at a day camp that summer. One of my oldest friends worked with me, and we agreed that all this disgusting going for the gold had to stop. We had to save our great nation. Together, we devised a new, untested idea to counter this orgy of American jingoism, an idea so powerful, that it has stood the test of time and has proven its greatness, again and again:

Go for the Bronze.

This is a very simple concept, which goes as follows: anybody can try to be first, and if you finish second, it was because you were trying to be first. But it takes someone special to try to be third. Nobody tries to be third. Nobody goes for the bronze. And therefore, when you Go for the Bronze, that makes you special.

We indoctrinated the campgoers, who were 7 to 9 year old boys, in this brilliant worldview. As they queued up for lunch or ran a footrace, my friend and I would yell “Go for the Bronze!” and they would oblige, trying to push two kids in front of them or slowing down as they headed to the finish line. They knew the greatness in coming in third.

But Go for the Bronze is more than just a concept. It has a historical imperative to dominate history. Look at the Olympics and Russian Irina Slutskaya, who was the Bronze medalist in women’s figure skating.

As she took the ice as the last competitor of the night, all Irina had to do was skate a clean program without falling, and the gold medal would be hers. But that would have been too easy. That would have been how “just anybody” would have approached it. Instead, Irina chose a harder, more noble way.

So she fell — not too hard, not too soft, but just right. She managed to drop beind Sasha Cohen and the Japanese skater who everybody has already forgotten. It was a remarkable achievement, the highlight of the Olympics. You can tell how amazing it was by Slutskaya's locker-room reaction following the medal ceremony.

This extends into all spheres of life. Ralph Nader could have graciously told people to vote for Al Gore in 2000, helping ensure more national peace and prosperity. He would have let Pat Buchanan come in third, but Ralph had to Go for the Bronze.

And President Bush, while no longer competing for elected office, put together a Go for the Bronze Government — third-rate cabinet secretaries, third-rate cronies running departments, third-rate lobbyists dictating environmental policy. You have to really try hard to not staff the most important jobs in the nation with the best and the brightest, the first-rate (and even second-rate) personnel. George himself was a third-rate student, a third-rate businessman, and a third-rate intellect. Kind of inspiring, don’t you think?

So if you’re a parent, listen carefully. The “right” way to raise your child is to tell them to try their hardest, and someday, they might be valedictorian, CEO of a company, or even President of the United States. But that simply will raise hopes that reality will inevitably demolish.

You now know the truly right thing to do. When you attend their swim meet, watch them in a piano competition, or are even helping them with the application for their third choice of a college, there is only one thing to say in order to fulfill your duty as a parent:

Kid, don’t worry about winning. Winning is for losers. Go for the Bronze.