December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Gold medal art

By |2018-03-21T20:14:08+01:00February 28th, 2018|"Notebook"|
In 1980, at the Lake Placid Olympics, American Eric Heiden produced sports literature, winning an unprecedented five individual gold medals, and setting four Olympic records and one world record.

hile watching the Winter Olympics when I should have been writing, I heard the same cliché over and over. Whether it was advertisers hawking cars or commentators telling competitors’ stories, there was a constant refrain about the Olympic dream we have all harbored.

The activities of writing and competing in the Olympics do not invite obvious comparison (medals for the fastest personal essay? for the best twists and turns in a novel?). However, the best explanation for why so few of us ever twirl or curl our way to a five-ringed podium is writer Anne Lamotte’s comment about aspiring writers. “They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published.” We all dream of firing home that winning goal or accepting the Nobel in Stockholm but most of us don’t want to do or don’t even like the work it takes to reach them.

The more I thought about Lamotte’s words, the more I saw similarities between writing and Olympic sports.

Both are way harder than they look and what may look the easiest is often the hardest, such as ice dancing or short fiction. The best athletes and the best writers share the ability to make it look effortless.

People assume that because athletes and writers (or artists or cooks for that matter) do things they do as a hobby, while on vacation or for entertainment, then writers and athletes must be having fun. Most of the time they aren’t, which is why winning athletes and writers often seem surprised after a success and say, “I just decided to have fun.” Enjoyment is not the natural result, but a self-imposed act of will.

Writing and high-level athletics are both solitary pursuits that feed on self-absorption. They require single-minded dedication and self-criticism. Any successful writing or sporting enterprise is the tip of an iceberg of a lifetime of work. Sadly, in the moment of reckoning, on the ice or the printed page, these can mean little; you are only as good as your most recent result.

Olympic athletes and writers share the burden of blurry distinctions between amateur and professional. With no barriers to entry, such as the academic qualifications or professional certification required of doctors or lawyers, is there a threshold for identifying yourself as writer or athlete? And how good do you have to be to avoid sounding pretentious when you do?

It is easy to say you are a doctor or lawyer, play for the NFL, ski in the World Cup or are on the bestseller list. But if you are not, saying you are a writer or athlete causes people to immediately lose interest in talking to you or suddenly act as if they have inadvertently exposed your embarrassing secret (this is why emerging sports seek the legitimacy of Olympic status.)

Talented amateurs can occasionally perform at a professional level and professionals can be mediocre and fail. But you can still tell them apart. The difference is that professionals don’t rely on the occasional flash of brilliance or shrug off a poor performance. Instead professionals aim for something harder, a level high enough that even on a bad day they can do well. This is why it is not disingenuous or corny when athletes say they were just “happy to participate.” It is also why focusing only on medals or big-time writing success is unfair. It is extraordinary to reach the Olympics, something you will never manage if, in Lamott’s words, you “kind of” want to do it.

Another difference between professionals and amateurs is how they test themselves, entering and re-entering competitions and submitting and re-submitting their work, even when they fail.

Yet professional writers and athletes are less motivated by outside judgments, such as rink-side scores or reviews, than amateurs think. An amateur may be pleased to hear “I liked it” or “I thought it was good.” Vague or false praise only frustrate the professional, who prefers — for all the pain — criticism that can improve results.

Both professional writers and athletes suffer the explanations and lectures of amateurs who seem to know our fields better than we do. Dare to contradict and, unless you are a medal-winner or New York Times bestseller, you will be accused of bitterness or sour grapes.

There are differences too.

Top athletes in popular sports earn more in a year than most — even the best paid — writers will in a lifetime.

Yet athletes’ careers are short and only for the young. Writers can start late and do well long past their physical prime; sometimes “later” or “mature” work is the best. An older writer who still writes is perceived as wise or venerable, even if her roots are grey or the tweed jacket is spotted with food. An old athlete in Lycra is a has been.

And as long as we’re talking about clothes, maybe when I sit down to write I should eschew the comfy pants and furry slippers and go for a spangled skating skirt.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."