By Jack Bowen
With the Olympic Games approaching, you can plan on hearing the word “sacrifice” a lot as we get to know the athletes. A recently released NBC promo bears the title, “Athletes Sacrifice It All to Make an Olympic Team,” and features snap-shot reflections of various Team USA athletes on their respective journeys to the Games. The list of purported sacrifices includes missing high school dances and friends’ birthday parties, being away from loved ones, and bleeding, sweating, and crying.
Elsewhere, on Team USA—the country, not the sports teams—Americans recently mourned the loss of Navy SEAL Charles H. Keating IV, killed in Iraq by ISIS on May 3. In the week following his death, an overflow public ceremony was held, followed the next day by a procession down the main street of the SEAL base hometown, Coronado, California. Schoolchildren and thousands of community members all lined the street to honor his sacrifice.
As these two stories appeared on my radar almost concurrently, I couldn’t help but reflect on what it even means to make a “sacrifice” as an athlete. Is that even possible? Then, as with most inquiries of this nature, the question of sacrifice in our own lives came into question: whether we should value it and, if so, how we can achieve it in our own little ways.
I grew up in Coronado, a “Navy town” with a geographical footprint more Navy than civilian. My father was in the Navy and flew helicopters in the Vietnam War and his father was Commander of the base on the island. I have many friends and ex-teammates who are Navy SEALs, and for sixteen years, the high school water polo team I coach visits Coronado to train, and we spend a day on the beach training with a cohort of SEALs. That short time with them often turns out to be the highlight of an already rich experience.
With all that being said, we can now turn to a well-known paradox in philosophical circles: as a word’s definition comes to include everything it starts to mean nothing. Paradoxical because it seems that a word with such a broad meaning would be quite useful but, as our intuition kicks in, we realize this is akin to talking without saying anything.
A favorite example involves using the word “selfish” in such a manner. Imagine classifying someone’s anonymous donation to charity as “selfish” just because it made the donor feel good, made the world they inhabit a better place, or, simply, because their “self” consciously chose it. Using the word “selfish” in this manner would render it meaningless: every conceivable action would be “self-chosen” and thus “selfish” and so the word would confer no meaning.
This, in some sense, is what’s happening in the case of our Olympic athletes and their so-called sacrifice. But it turns out the concept of sacrifice is less slippery than many others. Less so, because important designators exist along the trajectory of possible actions; primarily, a sacrifice is made for another. This turns out to be the key criterion. With Keating at one end of the spectrum, his sacrifice is obvious to us because he gave up something monumental in order that others get something in return.
It’s worth recognizing here that Keating need not have been killed in order to have sacrificed. The risk alone of putting oneself in harm’s way for the sake of others is sacrifice. The trip overseas to a hostile environment, constantly in danger, sleeping in poor conditions for months while mortars explode nearby: this is a sacrifice itself.
Compare this to the world-class athlete who travels overseas for their sport. I had the good fortune of training with the U.S. National Water Polo Team for four years, including a stint preparing for the 1996 Olympic Games. When we traveled to Europe to train or compete, the trips were certainly “grueling” in some sense. We trained two to three times per day, watched game video, would share hotel rooms with teammates and occasionally eat native cuisine not so agreeable with American palates. But we can hardly consider this a sacrifice in any way, despite the slight discomforts, being away from family and loved ones, not pursuing a more “lucrative” career and, occasionally “bleeding, sweating, and crying.”
So when we hear of the purported sacrifice of Olympic athletes, it seems as though we’ve made the earlier-referenced linguistic error. We’re on the wrong side of the spectrum and the criterion we’ve used for “sacrifice” seems to be something like, “did something challenging,” or, “did one thing instead of something else more lucrative.” When we hear of the Olympic diver who only eats “a whole lot of fruits and vegetables” while avoiding any junk food, or the gymnast who didn’t attend prom at her high school, or the hockey player who got to the Olympics, “due to hard work and the sacrifice it took…giving up social events or pursuits such as TV-watching,” we can slide them to the non-sacrifice end of the spectrum. Somewhat ironically, it’s just these reasons so many parents actually want their children involved in sports: these numerous tangential benefits keep kids out of trouble, not to mention encourages them to do things directly benefiting them such as eating healthy and avoiding mindless TV-watching.
Likewise, we can’t assert a sacrifice is doing one thing instead of something else because this is just existing. Life is about choosing to do one thing in lieu of the infinite possibility of things one could be doing. Referred to by economists as “opportunity costs,” you could be doing an infinite number of things right now and, yet, you’re reading this article. Thus, when we read in an article entitled, Olympic Athletes Sacrifice ‘Normal’ Lives to Achieve Extraordinary Goals, that Michael Phelps, “Spent long hours plunging into pools rather than partying with pals,” we recognize he simply chose one thing over another, in order to achieve personal goals.
This, then, eliminates the contradictory concept of “self-sacrifice.” By choosing one thing over another to benefit yourself—be it sitting in class on a nice day in order to get an education, or working at a desk to make money—you’re voicing your set of values and acting accordingly, all on behalf of yourself. Actual sacrifice requires that you intentionally give something up for someone else.
Thus, my initial intuition upon writing that parents do not make a sacrifice for their children seems ill-founded. Giving up what parents give up for the sake of their children is on the sacrifice side of the spectrum, just not too near the Navy SEAL side of things. Parents really do, in nearly every way, sacrifice something for their children, be it time, money, pursuit of life goals, etc.
At this point, the skeptic reminds us of the joy of parenthood and the conscious decision, for most, to make this life choice. Studies show parenthood results in greater happiness and meaning in one’s life over the long term. While these are typically tangential motivations, deriving joy and meaning from an act should not preclude it from being a sacrifice. The Navy SEAL likely derives some big picture meaning and benefits from his job: a sense of pride defending one’s country, the satisfaction of doing an exceptionally difficult job well, and getting paid. All that being said, clearly they make a sacrifice. Some positive return from your sacrifice doesn’t diminish the sacrifice itself. Enjoyment of honorable actions shouldn’t diminish the honor.
During my team’s annual beach training, the SEAL in charge has us lie in the shallow beach water, with arms linked and waves crashing over our heads. And at that point, these young men begin to chant a mantra taught to our program by a Navy SEAL years back: “Teamwork-Humility-Discipline-Courage.” It’s a moving experience for me in part because here, on this Naval Base where Navy SEALs train, these words mean something. They embody the richness of what they connote, much like words such as “love,” “respect,” and “honor” achieve their real meaning at weddings. They do so because we are, in a sense, on “sacred” ground. With “sacrifice” rooted in the Latin sacer—sacred—we are in the presence of those who make a true sacrifice.
At this point, we can celebrate Olympic athletes for what they do embody. One need not sacrifice themselves as the sole means for garnering deserved praise. The rest of us who are watching know what it’s like to submit to our humanity: to eat poorly, sleep poorly, and to just be so tired from daily living to forgo the day’s planned jog and, instead, order a pizza and sit on the sofa with a soda and watch world class athletes perform. Interestingly, in interviews with world-class athletes explicitly asked about their “sacrifice,” they repeatedly explain it away. Olympic gold medal gymnast Bart Conner responded, “I never saw any of it as a sacrifice, just choices. So, I never felt that I was missing something, only that I chose something else,” and U.S. soccer phenom Brandi Chastain commented, “I honestly and humbly answer that I don’t feel I sacrificed anything.”
Olympic athletes exhibit universally virtuous qualities and character traits—traits such as determination, fortitude, commitment, perseverance. These are the things motivating many of us to watch these sports every four years. They inspire us, and rightly so. Even if the athletes hail from a country other than ours, we can appreciate what they did—what they must have done—to arrive on that stage. And if we realize they do it on behalf of the country we support, it’s all the better. Not a sacrifice, but certainly something worth cheering for and celebrating, keeping in mind the bumper sticker we see occasionally as we are out enjoying our freedom: “All gave some. Some gave all.”
Jack Bowen, a philosophy teacher, is in his 17th season as head coach of the Menlo School boys’ water polo team. He played on the U.S. National Team (1994-1999) and served as the National Team assistant coach (2002). A two-time All-American and Academic All-American at Stanford, and an NCAA MVP, Bowen holds a bachelors degree in Human Biology, and a master’s in philosophy from Long Beach State. He was named a Positive Coaching Alliance Double-Goal coach in 2012, as well as Central Coast Section Honor Coach in 2006.