- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Now that the Olympic torch is burning in China, we can reflect on what the games can teach us about ourselves and our lives. What is it about the games that fascinate us?

Surely, there is the pride of rooting for “the home team” as it takes on the world. Some revel in the meeting of nations - a chance to set aside politics, trade disputes and war and join in the passion play of thrilling games unfolding on a world stage. No doubt we admire the grueling physical and mental preparation - the years of punishing practices, discipline, focus and skill-building that go into the nine-second sprint, the epic soccer match or the attempt to shatter history’s records.

Through the games, many of us can reconnect with the character-building aspects of sports - aspirations of being fierce and unyielding in competition, but also graceful and honorable in victory or defeat, as well as the team-building aspects of striving not for personal glory but for team triumph.

The Olympian pledge captures the spirit of the games. It reads: “Ask not alone for victory. Ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honor to yourself. Even more, you bring honor to us all.” Part of that spirit comes from the fact that the games are an equal-opportunity competition. When athletes and teams put on their game faces, differences of socioeconomic status and station in life are incinerated, and people are left to their own devices, skill, talent, effort and will. What is it then that will set them apart from the pack?

One of the people we interviewed for our book had his own Olympic-size moment on a run-down playground in inner-city Philadelphia. When Kevin Carroll was 6, he and his brothers had been abandoned, packed up on a bus and sent to live with their grandparents, but that soon led him to a playground: “It was so early in the morning,” he said, “there were no children up there. I was hanging out, and I saw a red rubber ball. I started to play for a little bit and, the next thing you know, kids started to come up to the playground, and they invited me in. They saw me with the ball, bouncing it around, and they just welcomed me. It was a watershed moment for me because I had never been so initially and unconditionally welcomed.”

Though Mr. Carroll was the smallest of the bunch, he earned their respect through the fervor with which he played.

He said, “I learned how to fight and scratch and compete through sports.”

Mr. Carroll spent much of his time wandering the streets: “I got taught by winos, addicts and dealers. … They’d say, ‘You have to be two times better than anybody who’s not of color. How are you doing in your books?’”

His best friend’s mother, Miss Lane, encouraged him to get involved, stretch himself and dream big.

“So there I am,” Mr. Carroll said, “playing the cello in the orchestra, doing Shakespeare and the starting running back. Miss Lane was the person who gave me permission to dream as big as I wanted to dream.”

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he landed a job at the Haverford School as trainer, and by exuding so much passion and enthusiasm for what he did, eventually worked his way up to the 76ers, becoming the third black head athletic trainer in the NBA’s history.

Today, Mr. Carroll is an author and social entrepreneur and has served as a creative consultant for the NHL, Nike, ESPN, Disney and Starbucks, where his words appeared on 17 million cups. He has dedicated his life to advancing sports and play as a vehicle for social change. Mr. Carroll has addressed the United Nations and was appointed as special adviser to Right to Play, a humanitarian group that designs global sport and play programs for children and communities affected by war, poverty and disease.

“The ball saved my life,” he said. “It gave me something to look forward to every day, something to literally chase. It was a way of changing my circumstances. … You’ve got to have something that you’re inspired by and that you want to chase every day. You have to be able to answer the question, ‘What’s your red rubber ball?’”

So as you enjoy the games, see how they shine a spotlight on the human soul, and think about what passions and dreams you may have in life that could take you to Olympic heights, on or off the field. What’s your red rubber ball?

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company. They can be reached by clicking here.

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