Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander

The questions posed to the silver medalist were harsh (“What was going through your mind as you fell off the beam, knowing that it must have cost your team the gold?” “What did you tell your teammates?” “How does it feel even though things didn’t turn out as you wanted?”), and the stock answers (“I mean, everyone else’s performance was perfect, so it was my fault… ” “I apologized to them…” “I’m really happy we made it this far…”) did little to hide disappointment.

I have no idea what was going on in that silver medalist’s mind, but it upset me that so much focus was placed on a single mistake in an otherwise spectacular performance. Should an Olympian who leaves Beijing with a medal be so tormented simply because said medal wasn’t gold?

We live in a culture that emphasizes superlatives. High school provides many examples: All-American varsity athletes, the valedictorian, and the superlative section of the yearbook. How healthy is such a pursuit?

When it comes to medals, no Olympian has accomplished what Michael Phelps did this week. In describing his recent victories, The Washington Post made the following observation:

Perhaps the measure of where Michael Phelps now stands — not only in the history of the Olympics, but in the history of athletics — is that he can pull off an unprecedented feat and have disgust wash over his face. Following his performance Wednesday morning — two more races, two more gold medals, two more world records, cue the yawns — Phelps couldn’t escape the idea that even a swim others couldn’t imagine can be flawed.

“I couldn’t see anything for the last 100” meters, he said. “My goggles pretty much filled up with water.”

What, short of lead anklets, would ruin him? Phelps won his signature event, the 200-meter butterfly, and broke his own world mark for his fourth gold medal. There was, though, no fist pump, no slap of the water, no sign of triumph in the least — just a disgusted and swift removal of his cap and those waterlogged goggles.

While striving for one’s best is a noble quest, fixating on perfection when it is unattainable can be problematic. Should one admire or pity Michael Phelps for being “disgusted” despite such an unrivaled performance? Okay, it’s hard to pity Michael Phelps.

Mistakes and accidents are unavoidable in any pursuit, so rather than dwell on them, one should try to assess the best way to make progress while moving forward in said pursuit . At some point, I might accidentally make the mistake of not following this advice, but I’ll try my best not to dwell on it.

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