Why is the spirit of the Olympic Games so addicting?

This past week as I was glued to Olympic coverage, I asked myself, “Why is the spirit of the Olympic Games so addicting?  What is it about watching the human body excel that stirs our souls? And why is the stirring so quickly gone when the games are over?”

Even the gold medal athletes experience an exhilaration as they push themselves to the limit. And then many confess to a letdown, even depression once the competition is done.

I am convinced watching these men and women excel brings a dormant, oft neglected need boiling to the surface of our souls. No matter what our station in life, whether athlete or homemaker, we long to be at the top of our game, living fully alive, working to be all we can be.

Yet, like the quote attributed to Henry David Thoreau many of us lead lives of "quiet desperation" and head for the grave with our song still in us.  Physically, mentally, socially and spiritually, we are coasting.

I should know. At 55 I was successful, financially secure and miserable. I had an enviable career.  I had the “gold medal” swinging from my neck, but somewhere along the line I had shifted into neutral. I was coasting to the finish line.

I had stopped reaching, risking and growing. Life was a matter of anticipating retirement, sitting on my “medals” and avoiding any pain or inconvenience at all cost.  The cost was higher than I realized. As Anne Lamott’s father, Kenneth, wrote, “[A] life oriented to leisure is in the end a life oriented to death––the greatest leisure of all.”  I was 60 lbs. overweight, battling depression, spending hours watching other people live out their lives and reach for their goals.   

Could that be the answer to the appeal of the Olympics?  We are captivated by the Olympic spirit because it is that same spirit that we long to re-ignite in our own lives.  The joy of living comes from pressing toward excellence.  Watching tiny, 15-year-old children fly through the air with ease and cut through the water like dolphins, reminds us of the pain, the effort and the thrill of being everything we can be. It reminds us of when we chose to dance instead of shuffle.

I will never swim 200 meters faster than Michael Phelps.  I will never even come close to his slowest time. But I did pull myself out of the recliner at age 62 and decided to live again.

I signed up to compete in a triathlon. I took second in my age group.  As I crossed the finish line my arms were raised as high as any of the athletes in London and my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t weep because I medaled. I wept because I had run well. I had left nothing on the course. I had finished.  

The Olympics reminds us of what it looks like to live: discipline, dedication to a goal, the quest for excellence, risk, pain—all the essence of being fully alive. Things we often leave behind as we are swallowed up making a living instead of living.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Many men die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.”  We wonder if that might be us, then we watch Michael Phelps decide to “push all the way to the wall” and something within screams, “I want a piece of that!” With the sound of the closing Olympic ceremonies still ringing in your ears, don’t sit on the moment. Capture it. Walk, run, read, love, study, discover. Life doesn’t have a winners’ circle; it just has a finish line and you’re not done running yet.

Last week at age 65, I climbed 14,420-ft. Mt. Harvard.  As I stood on the summit, the thought hit me:  The Olympics is less about who wins the gold than it is about a glimpse at a gold standard of living.  Go for the gold.

Ken Davis is a best-selling author and frequent radio and television guest. Ken’s daily radio show Lighten Up! is heard on more than 1,500 stations in the United States and around the world. He is the author of "Fully Alive: A Journey that Will Change Your Life" (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2012).