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Do Olympians Deserve Their Gold?

Michael Phelps
AP
Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps accidentally swam Saturday into one of the great questions that lurks just beneath the surface of the 2012 presidential campaign. (Election 2012: Full CNBC Coverage)

Earlier in the week, Phelps had come in fourth in the 400-meter individual medley as U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte took the gold. Lochte's victory was attributed to his years of relentless training.

Phelps' loss — if that's the right word for being the fourth-best 400-meter individual medley swimmer in the world — was quickly chalked up to suspicions that the man heralded as the greatest swimmer in the world just hadn't quite practiced as hard as he had in the past.

This fit neatly into a storyline we often encounter in the Olympics: Winning is attributed not just to superior ability or luck, but moral merit. (XXX Olympic Games: CNBC's Biz Stories)

You never hear of Olympian gold medal winners described as "fortunate" in the way, say, that Pres. Barack Obama describes the wealthy. At least when it comes to the Olympics, the winners win because in some metaphysical sense they deserve to win.

This narrative was challenged Saturday, however, when Phelps swam the butterfly leg in the 4-by-100 medley relay that won gold for the American team. Phelps also beat Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley.

As Josh Levin explains on Slate, this undermines our desire to believe that the hardest worker—the one who "deserves" to win—always comes in first:

We want to believe in stories like the one we were being fed about Ryan Lochte. The Lochte narrative is the easiest kind of story to understand, a redemptive sports arc with a beginning (the disappointment of always coming in second), a middle (the aquatic version of a Rocky-esque training montage), and an end (Olympic glory). The Phelps story, by contrast, always stood out for its lack of relatable humanity. Yes, he has a mom and sisters who hoot and holler for him in the stands. But this is a guy who swam without ever sinking. He was infallible, unbeatable, a Speedo-wearing creature born deep below the sea.

Reality has never really been kind to the theory of moral merit, which is the idea that people get what they deserve. History is full of beautiful losers and notorious victors. Short of a theology that the powerful and prosperous are God's elect, it's hard to attempt to vindicate the view that moral merit determines successful and failure. Or, of course, that prosperity or failure are evidence of moral merit.

Robert H. Frank's column in Sunday's "New York Times" describes a recent paper by sociologists showing that luck plays a far greater role in success than many suspect. Even the hardworking and naturally talented can be hurt by bad luck. And success is often due to good luck.

Early success — even if unearned — breeds further success, and early failure breeds further failure. The upshot is that the fate of products in general — but especially of those in the intermediate-quality range — often entails an enormous element of luck.

We always knew that it was good to be smart and hard-working, and that if you were born or raised with those qualities, you were incredibly lucky, just as you were lucky if you grew up in the United States rather than in Somalia. But the sociologists’ research helps us understand why many people who have those qualities never find much success in the marketplace. Chance elements in the information flows that promote that success are sometimes the most important random factors of all.

Of course, we should keep celebrating the talented, hard-working people who have succeeded in their businesses or careers. But the research provides an important moral lesson: that these people might also do well to remain more humbly mindful of their own good fortune.

Let's see how this translates politically. Liberals will tend to take this as evidence that the successful owe a part of their wealth to the less fortunate. But this assumes that the rich are only entitled to their wealth if their means of acquiring it passes a metaphysical litmus test that measures just desserts. Wealth that passes the test of moral merit is "earned"; wealth that doesn't pass the moral merit test is "unearned." This is assumption is what informs Obama's references to the rich as "fortunate," for example.

"But even if the word choice was not deliberately intended to provoke class warfare, it does seem to epitomize one of the key fault lines between liberals and conservatives: to what extent the wealthiest (as well as the poorest) members of society have earned, or rather simply received, their present fates," Catherine Rampell at the Times writes.

This assumption is a very odd one. As we've seen, it is profoundly antihistorical. It slips back in to the dialogue the concept of moral merit, even while it challenges the grounds for it.

To put it differently, even if your success if partly grounded in luck (rather than purely talent or effort), there's no reason to suppose it is unearned. If the kids on my block in Park Slope (that's in Brooklyn, for you out-of-towners) happen to decide to sell lemonade on a day that turns out to be unexpectedly blistering hot, are they undeserving of the money people pay them?

And if Michael Phelps has had the luck to be born the world's perfect swimmer, so that he wins gold even when he isn't working as hard as other swimmers, does that make his medals somehow unearned?

An open mind would look at the findings of the sociologists and the medals of Phelps not as evidence that success outside of moral merit is illegitimate, but as evidence that the tie between moral merit and success is an illusion, a cloud in the mind that divides us from reality.

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