On being ... a personal best
I haven’t watched much of the Vancouver Olympics. I never participated in competitive sports and I’ve never liked speed or danger. So, watching someone hurling down a mountain nearly out of control, or flying through the air and doing somersaults with a board or skis attached to their feet, doesn’t do much for me.
Since I don’t follow any of the sports and I don’t know any of the athletes, it doesn’t matter much to me who gets the gold, silver, or bronze in the individual events. And, whenever the flags go up at medal ceremonies, I feel bad for those who came in second and third. While I’m sure every athlete who steps onto a podium at the Olympics is thrilled, I can’t help think that besides feeling like a winner, some silver and bronze medalists must also feel like a loser because they aren’t going home with the gold.
Even if you’re not really following the Games, when your country is hosting, it’s impossible to ignore them altogether. During the first week of the Games, it seemed every other story was about “Own the Podium”. I had no idea what that was about, but I couldn’t help notice it was getting a lot of air time. Commentators seemed to fall into two categories: those who thought Own the Podium was a joke (given Canada’s standing in the medal count early on) and those who thought Own the Podium made Canadians sound arrogant and overbearing -- traits that clash with Canadians’ self-image.
When I first heard the expression, I assumed it was basically a mantra the Canadian Olympic team’s psychologists had been encouraging our athletes to chant as they visualized themselves standing on the winner’s podium. Having, on occasion, tried “creative visualization”, I thought Own the Podium was a great idea -- certainly couldn’t hurt.
Then, after seeing a political cartoon showing a podium with a hefty price tag and a caption that implied that Canadian taxpayers certainly do “own it”, I figured Own the Podium must be something about increased funding for Canadian athletes in hopes of a particularly good showing on our home turf. Given how many millions of taxpayer dollars were spent hosting the Games, my attitude was: so what’s a few million more for the team.
It wasn’t until I heard at the start of week two of the Games that the Canadian Olympic Committee officially announced it was dropping Own the Podium that I actually found out what Own the Podium was all about. Apparently it was a $117 million quest (with $66 million of it taxpayer dollars) to have Canada win more medals at the Winter Games than any other country.
Even after learning that Own the Podium’s goal was being the top medal-scoring country, I couldn’t believe: (a) that people got upset when it was clear we would fall short of that mark, and (b) that people took it literally. I mean, really -- if you’re going to set a goal about medal winning, what else would you aim for but winning the most? But even so, surely people must realize that just because you throw lots of money at a goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve it. I couldn’t help think that Canadians who were so down on Own the Podium would have felt better if they’d have looked at it the way I did: that Owning the Podium was really meant to inspire and motivate the athletes, not as some government expenditure meant to ensure a particular outcome.
Anyway, amid the non-stop chatter about the Olympics, the other day I finally heard something that changed my outlook about them forever. It was something the instructor in my spinning class said. Apparently he made the Canadian cycling team when he was 19. He said that once he was competing at the international level he realized that, though the difference between the first place finisher and the tenth place finisher may only be seconds, the difference in terms of talent and ability is vast. Given this, he said, the reality is that the majority of athletes at the Olympics realize they’re not going to win a medal but they go there to fulfill a dream to achieve their personal best.
That comment really got me thinking and helped me see the Olympics in a whole different way. In fact, I finally “get” that the Olympics are a metaphor for life. There are winners and losers and there’s victory and disappointment but in the end, regardless of the outcome, there’s satisfaction if you worked hard and gave it your all.
Ironically, with one day left in the competition, though the Canadian team hasn’t won the most medals overall, we’ve already set a record for most gold medals won by a host country. So, if the Own the Podium vision had only been about winning gold, we’d have achieved the goal. Mind you, if the goal had been that narrow, there’d have been people complaining that winning gold isn’t all there is to the Olympics. And that, of course, is the point my spinning instructor brought home to me. The spirit of the Olympics is as much about competing with yourself and pushing yourself to do your personal best as it is about winning a medal.
So -- hats off to all the Olympians and to the spirit within each of us that pushes us to achieve our own personal best, whatever that may be.
© 2010 Ingrid Sapona