The hearts and minds of Olympic athletes function differently than most people's. I try to imagine what would have made me willing give up my teenage years, or even my 20s, to put my body through painful workouts six or more hours a day, year after year, just for the chance of winning a single competition. Without even a major sponsor, most likely. I may say, lightly, that I "love" running, hiking, kayaking and scuba diving. But the love of a sport, and the desire to win--and win BIG--burns far brighter and more intensely in Olympic athletes than I can even really imagine.
So part of the fascination of the games is watching these alien creatures perform feats above and beyond what normal people would even attempt, and watching them triumph or fail in glorious or horrific technicolor. They are our avatars, playing out a battle among the gods for the inspiration and entertainment of the mortals watching from the sidelines.
But within that select group, there are those who comprise an even more rarefied and fascinating sub-set: those who take on sports that are dangerous as well as difficult. Nobody worried that Michael Phelps was going to kill himself while swimming the 100 meter freestyle. But no matter what the final ruling is on the safety of the luge track at the Vancouver Olympic games, last Friday's fatal accident there was hardly the first serious or even fatal accident in the sports that make up the Winter Olympics.
Nobody who grew up before the 1980s could forget the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World of Sports, with the ski jumper spinning and careening crazily off the side of the jump in the "agony of defeat." More recently, in the 2006 Turino Olympics, there were no fewer than 14 crashes in luge competition, with five significant injuries, including two head injuries that required hospitalization. And that pales next to the number of the top alpine ski racers who have struggled to come back from life-threatening crashes and injuries. Not all have made it.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's serious risk involved in sports that propel unprotected humans down unforgiving slopes and ice tubes at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. And the athletes know the risks as well as anyone. It's what they do with that knowledge that makes them different.
Recent research has explored a number of physiological factors that might explain why some people are drawn to sports like BASE jumping, cliff diving ... or luge, ski jumping, or downhill ski racing, while the rest of us are not. Those extreme athletes may have lower levels of something called monoamine oxidase B, meaning that it takes a bigger thrill ride for them to get the same rush most of us get in tamer situations. Or, their brains may release different levels of dopamine, making them more sensitive (in a good way) to thrills. Or they may possess higher levels of neuropeptide Y, which allows them be less afraid in high-risk situations.
But when it comes to Olympic competitors, a significant factor is also the intensity with which they want to win. A goal that, at least on some level, they have to want more than they want to survive. Because in order to win in a risky sport when the difference between victory and defeat can be a few hundredths of a second, athletes have to suppress their natural self-preservation instincts and throw themselves, fearlessly and aggressively, onto a razor-thin and murky edge outside of control, but just this side of disaster.
Being fearless is a lot easier, of course, when you're young or haven't ever discovered where all that fearless aggression can land you. Which is why, despite all the fuss made over American Bode Miller's Bronze Medal and the unlikely Swiss champion, Didier Defago, in yesterday's men's downhill race, the most astounding accomplishment actually may have been the Silver Medal finish by Norwegian skier Aksel Lund Svindal. Because two years ago, Svindal fractured bones in his face and had to undergo abdominal surgery to make sure his internal organs were intact after his ski sliced through his backside in a horrific downhill crash.
Normally, after an outcome like that, the human brain registers a distinctly negative association with the events that caused it to prevent the event from happening again--a reaction we generally recognize as "fear." In most people, that's a good thing. Helps the species survive, and all that. But you can't feel fear and be an Olympic or World Cup Champion. Feel fear, and your muscles tense, your technique tightens, and you can't take the risks necessary for victory. So for athletes who've sustained serious injuries--and there are a quite a few, in the Winter Olympic sports--and still want to win, the battle to overcome that natural survival instinct becomes a lot harder.
Some, like Antoine Deneriaz, who won the Gold Medal in the men's downhill at the 2006 Olympic games in Turino, only to suffer a spectacular crash three weeks later, decide their instincts were right, after all. Deneriaz struggled to come back, but right after the race in which Svindal was so badly injured, Deneriaz announced his retirement. The New York Times quoted him as saying, "I'm no longer able to assemble all the ingredients. Not only am I not going fast, but I'm no longer having fun. The mornings, when I grab my downhill skis, had become days of worry and doubt."
Downhill racer Scott Macartney, who suffered such serious head injuries in a race accident two years ago that he had seizures on the slope before being airlifted to a hospital, struggled to get his old speed and form back, but didn't quite make the Olympic team this year. An article about Macartney in Outside magazine last fall quoted another skier, also struggling to come back from a violent crash and injury, as saying, "you watch the guys on that pitch and you can tell who's been injured. You can see it."
It's understandable. It's reasonable, even. The astounding exception, then, is the athlete who wants to win so badly that even if they have a visceral, hard-wired memory of disaster, they manage to push past it to reclaim their old form and win. Which is what's so remarkable about Svindal's Silver Medal finish. Beating Bode Miller was the easy part. Whatever threat Miller and the others posed, it had to be nothing compared to the challenge of beating back his own fears and heightened, primal instincts for survival in order to go screaming down that mountain at 73 mph--on the ragged edge, and fast enough to win.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
CHELSEA, Ma.—The woman Barry Berman saw sitting in the dining room of the nursing home was not his mother.
Or, at least, she was his mother, but didn’t look anything like her. His mother was vivacious, or she had been until she was felled by a massive stroke and then pneumonia, so he’d moved her into a nursing home so she could recuperate. He knew he could trust the nursing home, since he ran it, and knew it was lauded for the efficiency with which it served residents. But when he went to look for his mother a day or two after he moved her in, he barely recognized her.
“I’ll never forget the feeling as long as I live,” he told me. “I said, ‘Oh my God, there’s my mother, this old woman, in a wheelchair, lifeless. Look what my own nursing home did to my own mother in a matter of days.”
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.