The Excellence of Nathan Chen, Olympic Ice-Skater: It’s the Way to Go, America!
No matter what, excellence shines through — and points the way.
Although the Beijing Winter Olympics, now concluding, have been highly controversial — going in they were tagged the “Genocide Olympics” for China’s inhuman treatment of its Muslim Uighur population; during the games Russia’s doping came to light (again!); and there was the fake snow — still, athletic excellence pierced through and thrilled.
Fair play is an ancient hallmark of the Olympics, along with excellence. While I vociferously defend human rights and abhor authoritarianism, China’s, Russia’s, anywhere (and I say so often in print), out of deference to the athletes themselves and rather than boycott, I tuned in, taping the events overnight, deleting sports alerts during the day, so I could experience supreme effort, the athletic variety, as it played out before me. The sorry politics of this moment are not of the athletes’ doing and thus — fair play — they should not be penalized by forces outside their control.
In fact, the athletes’ discipline, dedication bordering on obsession, and deliverance on a quest undertaken almost always in childhood to excel at something they found they were uniquely suited to do — in other words, the quest for excellence — may point the way at this low moment.
Especially the excellence of Nathan Chen, the American who won the gold in the men’s figure skating competition (also here).
Every Olympics has its takeaway image. For me it is Chen’s sublime performance in his final program (video here), whose jaw-dropping athleticism and artistry he delivered with, it seemed to me, ease and even ecstasy. (For his sublime short program, see here.) That Chen’s performance was redemption for his disastrous 2018 Olympics, marked by falls and far from the medals podium — humiliating for the “Quad King” (he was the first man to execute a quadruple jump in competition, in 2016) — made his 2022 Olympic victory, in which he landed in total all nine (9) quads, seem a triumph, the climax of a drama in which a mere mortal turns Tragedy into a New Day.
Observing this triumph, one thinks of the slog, the endeavor, also the scenery seen along the path to comeback. As it happened, at the time I was rereading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and this passage leapt out as illustrative of Chen’s odyssey. Wherein lies the secret to a life rightly lived, asks the stoic emperor-philosopher? Not in wealth, celebrity, or worldly pleasures, but:
“In doing what man’s nature asks. How so? By adopting strict principles for the regulation of impulse and action. Such as? Principles regarding what is good or bad for us: thus, for example, that nothing can be good for a man unless it helps to make him just, self-disciplined, courageous, and independent; and nothing bad unless it has the contrary effect. Of any action, ask yourself, What will its consequences be to me? Shall I repent of it? Before long I shall be dead and all will be forgotten; but in the meantime, if this undertaking is fit for a rational and social being…why look for more?”
Chen, humiliated in 2018, might have lost himself in bitter despair. Instead, he rededicated himself to the grueling effort to start all over again. With support of family and friends, and attending Yale University where everyone seems a “virtuoso,” Chen gained perspective: Obsession with winning, he realized, was his “demise”; balance was key. And how approach again his Nemesis, the quad jump? Every avenue of life has its absurdities and I imagine Chen has stoically accepted the absurdity of the quad — and determined to just “get it done.” In sum: perseverance, repurposed purpose, folding in the absurd, all in the context of icebound reality and a matured balance — to achieve excellence again in what he loves most. Says Chen, expressing the truth of an old cliché, “You learn the most from your failures.”
Which is why I believe Nathan Chen’s example can point the way forward for America.
Since 9/11, America has floundered badly, struggling with itself over everything — goals, policies, even who we are as a people. Riven by bitter partisan division that sees reality in diametrically opposite ways, this Great Power has humiliated itself again and again and again — unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a catastrophic exit from the former and descent to torture in the latter; electing a man-child and faker to lead the world’s superpower, who still mewls about his lost re-election and vows revenge; and, ongoing, bungling the COVID-19 crisis, not only at the federal level but amongst ourselves, falling out over masks and vaccines, and thus, despite ourselves (or dare I say actually to spite ourselves?), extending our suffering.
Moreover, we keep floundering with such gusto, even after 20+ years. The dominant mode, still, is superabundant energy unleashed superabundantly, like the amped-up singing and dancing of the TV staple “America’s Got Talent,” which premiered in the post-9/11 drift (2006), hit it big, and now is rolling out an even more amped-up variant, “America’s Got Talent: Extreme.” The extreme theme is still so much with us. As the old (bad) joke goes, “We’re not sure where we’re going, but we’re making great time.”
As the ancient Greeks would tell us, America is caught in its own internal struggle, the classic struggle between the Dionysian (instinct and chaos) and the Apollonian (reason and harmony) — with the Dionysian now hogging the stage. Until these two forces are in balance — such a lovely thought, balance: where reason and harmony give form to instinct and chaos, where instinct and chaos bring to bear vitality and passion — America’s decline will continue, if not accelerate.
To save ourselves, America needs to push reason and harmony center-stage again, to resume interaction with instinct and chaos, to push the action forward, get to balance. Like Nathan Chen: After humiliation on the athlete’s biggest stage, the Olympic Games, he dug deep, got quiet and calm, and, with deliberation and perseverance, and with daring and bravery slaying his Nemesis (the quad), Chen rebuilt both his art and himself into the epitome of excellence. And if you think that sounds like boring labor, look again at what the triumph of excellence looks like.
America: Let’s get excellent again. Instead of the extreme performative, let’s focus, each of us, on getting excellent in our chosen vocations, paths, beings. With American democracy to be saved from implosion (that is, from ourselves) and self-induced national decline to be reversed, while, fortunately, aided by a dynamic COVID-defying economy, we have our work to do and the tools to do it with. Choose excellence.