Olympians Call Us To Dream Big

Published Saturday, July 5, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

The past week has taught us an important secret to success. Aim higher, dream bigger, accept no limits. If you’re not convinced, ask an Olympian. If you’re reading this in a public place, chances are there’s an Olympian near you right now.

A world-class athlete will tell you they constantly fine-tune in their training, but there are also times when they undo everything and start over.

Reinvent your routine in just the right way and your training may suddenly advance more rapidly. A breakthrough may be looming, but only if you summon the courage and the humility to consider whether what you already know is wrong.

Dick Fosbury’s track coach at Medford High School told him to just “play around” with different ways to get over the high jump bar, and the “Fosbury Flop” was born. Fosbury perfected his technique while studying engineering at what is now Oregon State University, broke the world record in the high jump, and brought home to Oregon a gold medal from the 1968 Summer Olympics. Each champion high jumper since has used the Fosbury Flop, crossing the bar face-up instead of face-down.

Athletes testify that things can change all at once. Everything comes together — the parts form a whole in a brand new way. Physicists call it a quantum shift. Biologists call it emergence. Cosmologists call it critical mass. Demographers call it the tipping point. Ethicists call it conversion. Parents call it a growth spurt.

In the early 1900s, civilization was fascinated with slow, steady improvement exemplified by machinery. By the middle of the last century, “new and improved” was redundant and self-evident. We believed everything was slowly getting better. Evolving.

Evolution may be good biology. But it’s profoundly misunderstood in popular culture. Evolutionists long ago abandoned incrementalism for what they call (no kidding) punk-EEK. “Punctuated equilibrium” emphasizes that things tend to stay the same, except when they don’t. Change comes in spurts.

How things change gives scientists and thinkers their best clues about how things are. Our fixation on slow steady change has led to flawed assumptions in psychology, sociology, cosmology, ontology, and many more -ologies.

Include anthropology, which in this case is us. Must we endure imperceptively small steps of improvement forever? Can we hope instead to change all at once? Yes, if we allow it, and if the necessary conditions for change are present.

We’ve seen this week how something like the Olympic Trials can change how others see us, and also how we see ourselves. Our civic leaders tell us the Olympic Trials will be hosted in Eugene again in 2012 “and every four years after that.” But the athletes around us would insist we aim higher, dream bigger, accept no limits.

Eugene should bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2020. Not the Olympic Trials. The Olympic Games. The big enchilada. The full meal deal. The whole shooting match.

The smallest city to host a modern Summer Olympics was Antwerp, Belgium in 1920. That city’s population was approximately 300,000 at the time, which is a good guess for how many people will be living in Eugene and Springfield a dozen years from now. Every other Summer Olympic host city in the past century has been much larger than Antwerp, but so what?

Big cities offer established infrastructure and name recognition. They have experience hosting massive events. But they also have crime, smog, traffic, and lots of other things that are not attractors for athletes and fans. If the International Olympic Committee stopped for a moment to think about crossing the bar face-up instead of face-down, they could see a future that’s very different from the past.

Instead of choosing from a handful of world-class cities every four years, they could use their event to shape future cities.

Athletes and fans would get a small city’s undivided attention. The infrastructure built to accommodate the Games would produce a lasting impact on the built environment, and a lasting impression on the city’s residents.

Phil Knight will be 82 in 2020, and he’ll be ready to think about his legacy on a global scale. Vin Lananna will be ready to be Eugene’s mayor or the University of Oregon’s 17th president, whichever he chooses. Oregon will be ready to accept visitors from around the world. And Eugene will be ready for its growth spurt.

Higher. Bigger. Without limits.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a past president of the City Club of Eugene, an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication, and the executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He blogs.