David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | david@davidaltshuler.com

Lieutenant, Win this Race

Everyone knows about Abebe Bikila in the Olympic marathon in Rome in 1960. World record. Ran barefoot. (Not a typo. Barefoot over cobblestones.) Made a political statement in Italy the country which, in Bikila’s lifetime, had bombed Ethiopia with a disregard for humanity that my poor power of words will not attempt to depict.

Everyone also knows that Bikila won the Olympic marathon again in Tokyo in 1964. Another race, another world record. This time Bikila beat the best in the world—68 entrants from 41 countries—by four minutes. Unprecedented. Four minutes. Everybody else could have been competing in another race. For second place.

But not everyone knows about the Olympic marathon in Mexico City in 1968 in which Bikila attempted to win his third Olympic marathon. No one else had ever won twice. (Subsequently Waldemar Cierpinski won in 1976 and again in 1980; and Eliud Kipchoge who won in 2016 and 2020 will try for his third Olympic win in Paris next summer.) Bikila and countryman Mamo Wolde were said to be together early in the event. Bikila, injured, realized that he would not win. The marathon, if I remember clearly, is something of a slog under the best of circumstances and not everyone puts forth a world record every time. Bikila was Wolde’s superior in the Ethiopian army.

Here is Fisseha Tegegn’s take on their conversation:

Bikila: “Lieutenant Wolde.”

Wolde: “Captain Bikila.”

Bikila: “I’m not finishing this race.”

Wolde: “Sorry, sir.”

Bikila: “But Lieutenant, you will win this race.”

Wolde: “Sir, yes sir.”

Bikila: “Don’t let me down.”

In sum, Bikila communicated to Wolde: “Lieutenant, win this race.”

I have no way of knowing if this delightful vignette is true. I was not invited to participate in that race and if I had been running, I would have been happily passing the 11-mile mark when the leaders were at Mile 18. But I love the story. Bikila’s confidence in his countryman, Bikila’s love for his country. “Lieutenant, win this race.”

Not to take anything away from this story, but I have to think that Wolde already knew what he was supposed to be doing that day. Your children too are completely aware of your wishes. “Oh, so my dad wanted me to do well in school?” Words no child ever spoke.

Your kids know exactly what you want them to do. They don’t need reminders. They need support. If your kids aren’t doing well in math, here’s what not to say: “He’s so smart. He could do it if he only tried.”

The implication, that your child is not trying, is not helpful. And probably not true. The other piece, that he’s so smart, insures that no matter what happens, the kid can’t win. “Well, of course he did well. But it’s not something that he worked hard to achieve; it’s something he was born with.” It’s like asking a person out on a date because their parents have money. If the family fortune is what you’re focused on, you might best keep that thought to yourself.

If you feel your kid is underperforming in math, you might want to show your unqualified and unconditional support by allowing your child to pick a math tutor—someone who loves math and loves children would be my recommendation—but give your child some options and let them choose the tutor with whom they feel comfortable. If family economics preclude a professional, the honor society at the high school is filled with bright, eager students willing to help out. Worst case, a study buddy can work wonders. Even if the peer student doesn’t know math, just having someone to meet every day can be productive.

Or your kid might just need to be left alone. Believe it or not, most adults don’t know any math. (How many of my erudite readers could pass a high school algebra II final? Anybody want to talk about logarithms, conic sections, the quadratic formula, or right triangle trig? I didn’t think so.) Your child might grow up happy and healthy without taking advanced math. You did. They might also.

Not everybody gets an A in math. Just like not everybody wins every marathon. And even the best of the best can have an off day.



Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2022    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    david@davidaltshuler.com