The Pros and Cons of Olympianism

An athlete who has qualified and is a medal contender chooses not to go to the Olympics. Another athlete who has worked so hard for the chance to go to the Olympics cannot compete due to injury or has an off-year and is deselected from the team.

Life isn’t logical. Sport is not fair. What something means to you may have a different meaning to someone else. I just read this blog titled “Olympic sportsmanship or not!” that got me thinking…

The blog I mention brings up many questions: Because a qualified athlete makes the choice to not to go to the Olympics does it diminish its meaningfulness? Is opting out an insult to those who work so hard for that chance? Should only sports that revolve around the Olympics as the pinnacle of achievement be allowed at the Games? Indirectly – if an athlete is already making millions from their sport does that mean they will automatically feel indifferent to competing at the Olympic Games? On the flip side, does competing and winning a medal at the Olympic Games instantly guarantee stardom and financial success for the struggling amateur athlete?

These days you can be a “professional” athlete competing in an amateur sport. Cycling is one example but I’m not going to get into the what defines amateur versus professional debate here.

I have an old book I love called, “On the Run: In Search of the Perfect Race”. When the book was published in 1979, to give you and an idea of who is speaking below, the co-author, a runner,  Marty Liquori had been ranked 1st in the world in the 1500m and 5000m on the track. He was also the American record holder at two miles and 5000m, while also having run the fifth-fastest mile of all time. When it comes to the Olympics, at 19 years of age, Marty was the youngest to reach the Olympic final in the 1500m. Read the book for the full story. I love it for the insights on the psychological and physical setbacks of a runner, or any athlete who is constantly pushing their limits.

On the run

When it comes to perspectives on a career and the Olympics the following two excerpts, one from a competitor, and one from the author, point out two very contrasting perspectives on the meaning of the Olympics:

“I know the expectations of people in my country. Every day they’d like a new world record. But I don’t care. I’m running only for the Olympic Games. There are runners and there are runners. Some do well in other races, some run fast times, but they cannot do well in the ultimate, the Olympics. The value of the Olympics remains. If you win, you’re lasting. And the Games include all the best runners, they are the true world championships. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. All runners want to run against the very best. The question is not why I run this way, but why so many others cannot.” (Lasse Viren, Finland, Munich Games 5000 & 10 000m champion, p. 41)

“This isn’t track to me, it’s something else – call it Olympianism. It represents the opposite end of my philosophy, which is to run many races and try to win them all. To me, a champion is measured by his durability over a number of years, not just by two races, every four years. I think his way insults the fans and his competitors. I don’t want you to come out and run against me when you’re in the same kind of shape as the jogger on my block. I don’t need that thrill, and you’re probably doing it just for money….I believe kids should go out and get the most they can from every race, they should go out and enjoy every meet for what it is. I don’t think you should always be thinking of the future. I don’t think you should be satisfied with a bunch of fourths and fifths, thinking always that it’s someday going to pay off. That’s not necessarily true. It doesn’t always work out that way. I know. I’m a living example of the fickle nature of sport.” (Marty Liquori, p. 41)

Regardless of philosophy, it isn’t lost on me that where I live in Canada many careers in sport depend on the Olympics. Funding goes to the sports with the most medal potential, which creates jobs that support those athletes and in turn provides more opportunity for athletes to reach their potential. Athletes who have no other sources of sport income (e.g. sponsorship) depend on it. Even in my field, the need for applied sport psychology consultants has grown because of the recognition of the importance of the mental game, especially when preparing for the high stakes, pressure cooker of the Olympic Games: those two weeks every four years when the non-loyal fans actually pay attention.

However, I will not define my career as a consultant by how many Olympians I have worked with, I’m not in that game. Nor do I believe athletes should define the worth of their athletic career based on four-year intervals. Not all sports are in the Olympics that “should” be. Not all athletes who “deserve” to compete get the opportunity to do so. More comes down to luck than most of us would like to admit.

I will always remember what my brother’s coach said when he qualified for his first Olympics in 2000 in Sydney, “Remember, it’s just another race.” And I get the common rebuttal, “Just another competition/tournament/race? It is but is isn’t!” From the outside it isn’t but perhaps the athletes who can remember and practice like it is on the inside can avoid the potential disillusionment of “Olympianism”.They can focus on celebrating every step of their career and ironically be most ready to seize the opportunity to perform their best when it “counts the most”, if that is your thinking…

 

 

 

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