I love the Olympics. They're like life in a swift-moving microcosm.
Each Olympics reminds me of things I used to know and had forgotten in the detritus of life and teaches me new things I can use in my own battles. Canada's Olympics was rich with lessons and inspirations this time round.
Every Olympics, people back home and reporters on the scene moan about when Canada will get their first medal. By Day Two, everyone is sure that our usual suckage will last all 16 days in a total medal drought. That really came to the fore during the Beijing Olympics when we waited 8 days for our first medal. This time around, our first one came quick. No time for the whining to really get going. But you could already feel the impatience beginning as soon as the first medal of the Olympics was awarded (in a sport Canada is not known for excelling in, which is kind of strange with all our eager rifle owners who like to shoot sans a license). Stoking impatience is our Olympic sport.
Unlike the audience on the couch, athletes must exercise patience. It takes patience to learn and master a new skill. It takes patience to soldier on through the inevitable plateaus. It takes patience to try and try again until they reach the Olympics. Once there, it takes patience to wait for their competition to start, especially those male marathoners. While everyone else is partying around them, they must maintain focus and disciplined training. The athletes who excel at patience achieve personal bests, and sometimes those bests equal medals.
Patience definitely is a virtue.
People hate to fail. It's embarrassing, humiliating, and for those with low self-esteem, like a personal indictment of who they are. But Olympians fail in public, in front of millions, not just a few family and friends. The hardest are those built up as gold-medal winners and then come in ninth or fourth or last. And so I have been amazed at the complete vulnerability some of our Olympians have shown us. Although they must've felt like crawling under a rock, they wore their failure for all to see, expressed their sorrow to Mom and country, and apologized. But they didn't seem to personalize it -- they didn't turn it into a failure of who they are as a person but kept it where it belonged: in a lack of training, a lapse of judgement, being bested by a better athlete. In other words, success wasn't going to be about changing who they are but about finding a better coach or improving a skill or patiently waiting for an injury to heal or strengthening their mental prowess -- once they had worked through their grief and rage (a matter of days for some). And for those at the end of their career, it may be about taking the lessons into the next leg of their life or nevertheless enjoying their past successes as they transitioned into a new career. Failure is grievous but a launching pad to renewed vigor and achievements.
Only after an athlete has failed, do we get a full view of how responsible Canadian Olympians feel towards Canada and her people and how committed they are to do their best for us. It's that sense of responsibility and commitment that is part of what drives them to excel. From personal experience, I would say it's when the going seems insurmountable and the sacrifices about to kill you is when that sense of responsibility and commitment keep you going. If the Olympians didn't have that then we wouldn't see their best performances, and I would bet it's those who don't have it who don't reach the Olympics. Too often what is behind mediocrity and doing as little as possible is a total lack of commitment and responsibility to those one knows and to the larger corporation or institution or boss man or nation. It's like you can see their thought bubble: "So what if I've cost you an opportunity, I don't feel well and it's Monday. I don't need to apologize." Maybe because life is rife with uncommitted people that's why we're astounded when we see it in our Olympians who've just failed before our eyes and apologize.
Resilience is a hard thing to pin down, but you know it when you see it. Canada's women's soccer team -- wow! To go from the grief and anger of having been cheated by, at best, an incompetent referee, to feeling pumped about winning a bronze in only three days without a lick of that grief in evidence is...well, it's astounding. And it makes one think.
When I saw the French and Canadian players lining up before walking out onto the pitch, I noticed a marked difference. The Canadians were excited, moving about in their eagerness to begin. The French looked unhappy and were very still as they stood waiting. The Canadians looked like winners, and the French as if they'd already lost. Sure, the French may've outplayed the Canadians, but the latter in their heads were winners before they began, eager to play and compete. That's why they won. Mental resilience equals great performances and celebrating even those achievements you would only days earlier have considered less than.
It's a lesson easier to see than learn for oneself without a great coach, whoever that coach or mentor be in your life. I can see why the team reveres their coach.
You can't do it alone. It may seem like those gold medals were won solely by the athletes, but every athlete talked in some way about others who helped them, whether a parent or a community who raised funds for them or a mentor in the sport or a great coach or their teammates (even if they were in an individual race). And they particularly talked about the sacrifices others had made for them when they'd crashed and burned and how awful they felt for having all that support be for nought.
Is sacrifice for another to help them achieve their dream worthless if they fail? Or is it beyond price in and of itself?
When the triathlete Paula Findlay came in dead last, those who supported her saw her failure unite and lift up a nation. She didn't achieve what she had set out to do, but she achieved something much more valuable: she energized a somnolent couch potato nation to reach out and become involved. And she may achieve something more: a needed analysis of how Own the Podium oversees bad coaching and bad medical advice, as well as how it teaches athletes patience as they wait for injuries to heal.
London 2012 has given me a lot to think about, as well as giving me much-needed moments of respite from the madness of my life. Thank you athletes!