The Theosophical Society in America

The Opportunity to Excel

By David H. Bland

Originally printed in the March - April 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bland, David H. "The Opportunity to Excel." Quest  92.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2004):70-71.

When I was a very young boy, one of the greatest lessons my father gave me was this admonition: "Son, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right."

My early image of that strong father and his counsel for becoming a man came thundering back to me as I read—no, as I become a part of—Phil Cousineau's new book, The Olympic Odyssey: Rekindling the True Spirit of the Great Games. After providing a brief overview of the ancient Greek games, Phil lets the athletes, coaches, and those they inspire remind us of the true meaning of our struggle to be the best we can be in life. This meaning informs every page, as expressed both by the philosopher coaches of antiquity and by modern trainers such as John Wooden, one of the most celebrated basketball coaches ever, whom Phil quotes as saying: "Success is peace of mind attained only through the self-satisfaction in knowing you've made the effort to do the best of which you are capable." Phil also reminds us that, at their core and from the outset of their three-thousand-year history, the Olympic Games provide a powerful legacy for striving for goals that resonate deeply with The Theosophical Society; namely, the sense of brotherhood beyond differences and the desire to excel for an ideal beyond the personal self.

At this crucial moment, the Theosophical Society of America stands at the threshold of being a significant force for making available the myths that can transform how people understand and apply this all-important principle of brotherhood. With our library resources, our unbelievable wealth of audio and video material, and our publishing house dedicated to making the classics as well as current writings accessible, we are a storehouse of information for the asking. Now, through the groundbreaking work of Richard Ellwood, we have embarked upon an even more profound journey: our E-Learning Capacity. This new TSA E-Learning System allows us to offer worldwide interactive courses of study that utilize textual material, as well as video and audio clips from lectures and programs, which until now have been available only to the few.

It is indeed a time to excel! But part of excelling is to access the myths that can help shape our intent and inspire us to go the extra mile, to give that which we had thought was beyond us. In its exuberant focus on the idealistic foundations of the Great Games, The Olympic Odyssey does just that. To give a sample of its treasures, permit me to share just a couple of the book's many stories.

In 1936, as Hitler was effusing his philosophy of Aryan superiority, an African American long jumper,Jesse Owens, experienced firsthand the real meaning of brotherhood. Under Hitler's baleful glare, Owens, a world-record holder, failed in his first two qualifying attempts. He had only one more chance. As he hung back, trying to gain his composure, his German rival Luz Long stepped forward to encourage him with a simple suggestion. Taking his advice, Owens easily qualified in his next jump. Moreover, he went on to win the event over his new German friend who had dared to affront the Fuhrer. Afterward, as the crowd chanted "Jazze! Jazze! (Jesse! Jesse!)," Owens raised Long's arm in triumph, instead of his own. The two of them remained friends for life.

Similarly, an event at the 1992 Barcelona Games completely captures the deep sense of kinship we must have if we are to achieve that pearl of great price: mutual understanding. On the final lap of the 400-meter race, Derek Redmond heard what every runner fears—the terrible snap of his hamstring. In agony, he watched as the other runners passed him by. Determined to finish the race, he was struggling to his feet when from out of nowhere bolted his father, who urged him to wait for the medics. With a determined look, Derek declared, "I must finish!" at which his dad replied, "Well, if you're going to finish this race, we'll finish it together!" Then slowly, and with the son leaning heavily on his father's shoulder, they did. It is this kind of determination and teamwork that is at the very foundation of excellence.

Finally, as we prepare ourselves for the race it is our own privilege to run, the story of Billy Mills speaks volumes. Billy, of "mixed blood" and an orphan, had a stepfather who through paintings of his ancestors and clippings of Olympic champions taught the myths that helped the boy run (in borrowed shoes) one of the most illustrious races in the history of the Olympics. In the last curve, Billy was engulfed by the leading runners. Remembering the commitments he had made to the stepfather who had helped him define his world, and with only fifteen yards to go, he flew past the favorites to win. After the race, an amazed official asked Billy, still in his borrowed shoes, "Who are you?"

As Phil Cousineau relates, Joseph Campbell once told him that "the miracle of the myths is the way we often perceive ourselves in them, how they show us reflections of our own inward life." No matter what your arena of endeavor in the sacred Game of Life, I hope you find the myths in The Olympic Odyssey a means of strengthening your own answer to "Who are you?"

And I hope the Theosophical Society's ongoing efforts to promote a sense of unity and universal brotherhood will provide a torch of understanding for you to pass among one another along the way.

The Olympic Odyssey: Rekindling the True Spirit of the Great Games by Phil Cousineau (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2003, ISBN 0-8356-0833-6, $17.95 pb) may be ordered directly from the publisher by calling (800) 669-9425 or emailing

Phil Cousineau has written seventeen books and is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who lecturesworldwide on mythology and creativity.