Sunday, August 24, 2008

Our Canadian Athletes, The Best Part of Us

They choke when it really counts.

We should send only winning athletes that we know will medal. Why are we wasting our tax dollars on all those athletes who don't get anywhere?

We don't do summer sports; we're a winter country. Winter Olympics are the only ones that count.

We don't win at real sports (variation: the horse did all the work). Fourth again.


Just some of the usual things Canadians come out with at the Olympics. And then there is the media. CBC went one way this year, without Brian Williams at the helm, barely reporting on any scandals or problems. But the rest of the media had a field day of bitching during the first half. As the medal drought continued day after day, the media coverage convinced us more and more that our team was a bunch of also-rans who wouldn't medal and fail all our expectations. No surprise then that the announcement of our first medal shocked everyone.

I think every country that expects to win medals puts their Olympic athletes under the microscope. Countries like Togo, which won its first Olympic medal here, simply jumped up and down in joy of that special moment. No complaining there! Not us. We find reasons to be unhappy about even a win. Very strange. But I thought about what would prompt such a downer of a response. I believe our inability to find joy is not just a symptom of Olympic fever, but how we approach life. We look to find ways to bring people down, to pound on a person in a moment of failure, to not support those most in need as well as those in their moment of joyous success. We don't like failures, we don't like weakness, yet we don't like the obviously successful either. It seems to hit a nerve. It's a destructive attitude that doesn't motivate or engender confidence. It's like we collectively feel bad about ourselves, are so afraid of failure that we don't want to see it, despise weakness because we're afraid of how we'd be if life dealt us a blow, yet if we don't have the courage to find success, we don't want others to either. We want those who do feel confident to be just like us, to feel bad about their lives and not aspire to change them. I've personally experienced this, but had no idea how widespread this attitude was until I read the comments on CBC.ca, even on articles about medal success. It was a downer. A guarantee to take the joy out of what a Canadian athlete had accomplished. I stopped reading them, just like I stopped seeing those who sought to bring me down as I struggled to get back up.

One of the things I sought to show in my book Lifeliner was that support is so necessary to success. That was true for Judy Taylor; it's true for our Olympic athletes. In our society of the individual, where we believe success only comes from our own hard work, we ignore the fact that we are social creatures and we reach our pinnacle when we are nurtured and raised up by those around us. Judy Taylor faced a frightening life of not ever being able to eat again, yet she faced it with courage because she knew she could count absolutely on her husband and family to stick with her, no matter what. She also had a goal. That's another key to success: to have a specific goal to aspire to, not one that can be fulfilled in a matter of days or hours or one put in vague terms, but one that will probably take years to achieve and then could lead to another bigger goal. Judy's goal was to see her children grow up; her next one, to see her grandchildren. The goals here at the Olympics ranged from Gold to simply learning how to perform inside the Olympic beast, as many are calling it now; their next goals after these Olympics range from reaching Gold or double-Gold to starting a different career to becoming a contender. The Canadian athletes, no matter if No. 1 or No. 40 all had the same attitude, which starts with the modern Olympic founder's contention:

"It's not the victory that matters most. It's the struggle."

It moves on to the idea that struggle includes failure, but failure is in the past, and is necessary for success. It doesn't need to be redeemed, just learned from:

"When you're struggling, that's when your real character comes out." Kyle Shewfelt.


"It's not about redemption. It's about seizing the moment." Adam Kreek, Gold-medallist in Beijing 2008.

It continues with the idea that failure can be so bad that everyone writes you off, but with the support of kind people around you who continue to believe in you even when you don't, give you the opportunities to crawl out of the hole, you see the possibility of reaching success:

"People can still do great things in their life. It doesn't matter what happened." Eric Lamaze, double-medallist in Beijing 2008.

And it ends with the simple joy in this quadrennial spectacle that carries on even after the Closing Ceremony:

"I've always been pretty motivated after the Olympics." Clara Hughes, five-time Olympic medallist.

The Toronto Star on Saturday listed the medal totals we've had since 1992, as well as the totals of the countries here this year. Medals have become the be-all and end-all of performance measure, probably because they're a simple way to measure success, but also because host countries each time have put more and more emphasis on their country receiving a certain number of Golds, being at a certain point in the medal standings. It's so silly that some countries rank themselves in terms of total medals won; others by the number of Golds won, whichever makes them look better.

Our best year was in Atlanta, in terms of total medals won. We win 3 Golds each year, no matter the total, except for one year, where we won 7. What's interesting about our Atlanta total was that we sent 100 more athletes then than we did this year. Athens was our poorest Olympics, and we sent 75 fewer athletes than this year. So often we assume only the world champions, the winners, are those who will get us those medals, yet as Simon Whitfield in 2000 and Ryan Cochrane this year showed, our best medals often come out of nowhere. Those who espouse sending only winners, including the COC, miss out on this important point: the more athletes we send, the greater our chances of winning medals. Atlanta and Athens prove that.

That's true not just because medal winners often come out of nowhere, but also because sending young athletes who are not ranked very high give them a chance to gain Olympic experience so that when they are ranked top in the next Olympic year, they won't be bowled over by the unique pressure of these Games. Other countries understand how important Olympic experience is. The COC needs to as well, especially for our very young winter athletes.

People say we're a northern country. But I don't know. Every year, all I hear is moan, moan, moan about the cold and snow and when is winter going to be over. So you'd think that everyone would be outside, enjoying summer sports. I don't know if it's true or not, but I suspect most Canadians are as disinterested in sports during summer as during winter. And that's a big part of the problem of not reaching excellence. We don't understand how difficult it is to excel in all sports, and we don't have the grassroots out of which talent emerges.

If we want success, it's real easy. Encourage the sport in elementary schools all across Canada - summer and winter, set up a competitive environment through all ages, identify those with talent, give them a venue to grow that talent, give them support for far longer than the four years prior to an Olympics, send them out to cut their teeth on the big meets before they're at the top level, and have the media report on the sport during prime hours, on front pages, same as hockey, same as figure skating, not buried in highlight clips on Saturdays or the backs of sports pages with a tiny photo at front.

What's interesting is hearing about life in the countries that champions come from. Jamaicans idolize track stars, sprinting and racing is followed and participated in by the population. They celebrate their talent, not harp jealously about choking. Kenyans run as part of their daily life from when in school on. Aussies love sport period. Meanwhile, Canadians only become interested in sprinting or swimming every 4 years. We follow hockey religiously and watch figure skating competitions. But we've only recently had a soccer franchise set up in Toronto, after years and years of school kids playing soccer after school and growing the sport. In other words, Olympic champions aren't born out of a vacuum or in 4 years only. It takes an environment that fosters and recognizes sport, as in the media show diving competitions, track meets, regattas as often as they show figure skating or hockey because they know Canadians are interested in the sport itself, not just the victories. It takes a school system that requires more hours of gym than it takes Sherraine to file her nails. It takes a societal attitude that values sport. And lastly it takes a society willing to invest in our elite, to value the notion that to foster excellence is a good thing. If we're willing to do that for our Olympic athletes who represent us and our values to the world, then maybe that will leak into our systems and our lives too. And that would be a good thing.

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