Excellence, Friendship & Respect

There was nothing like the anticipation that accompanied the London 2012 Olympics. On the contrary, the lead up, heavily tainted with allegations of doping together with the more recent expose of systematic doping at country level left many wondering how ‘real’ the events were that they were watching. The absolute focus on winning at any cost both to improve the individuals personal net worth and to aid the political bragging rights between the top countries had perhaps stretched the Olympic ideal to its absolute limit.

The Olympics have always been slightly removed from other sports contests. The central ideals flow from three core values : Excellence, friendship and respect. Indeed the official IOC website defines the Olympic Creed as follows:  

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” 

The pursuit of medals, seemingly at all costs seems to address only the first core value – and often at the expense of the other two.

Do Medals Equal Success?
Image ©  KCXD
As enjoyable as the Olympics were, success seems to be increasingly seen as the numbers of medals won – purely measured in terms of the first of the values. Don’t get me wrong. I love that in certain sports we are now the Australia of the ’90s. Looking back at that time, I remember admiring the Australian pure desire to win, the country’s cut throat approach to individuals and sports that didn’t make the mark and then the resulting sporting achievement. I enjoy now our absolute dominance in sports like cycling (whilst desperately hoping it’s not down to anything other than hard work) and I am fascinated by the focus on concepts such as marginal gains pioneered in British cycling by Brailsford and now picked up in hockey and other sports. That idea of  improving every element by 0.1% is something we can all take into our wider lives. And yet, there is something slightly distasteful about success purely being measured in terms of the performance of this highly paid, often country funded group of elite athletes.  I cheer on British medals as much as the next person but I do wonder whether we have lost sight of the true meaning of success.

Isn’t all sport like that? Purely focussed with a win mentality which drives commercial gain? In some ways yes. The Premier League is probably the best / worst example. It is all about the money. Globally marketed clubs mixing on the Stock Exchange alongside Blue Chip companies, Astronomical TV deals funded by advertisers desperate to tap in to in to one of the biggest markets in the world. And individual players understandably making multi millions of pounds to showcase their talent.  And the nail in the coffin: the deliberate lack of any filtering down of that money to the pyramid that supports it and especially to the grass roots (legacy in Olympic terms).

The difference between the Olympics and  the Premier League though is that the latter makes no real pretence of this. It’s a money making machine. It was formed by the top clubs purely for that aim. The side effect of producing potentially one of the best leagues in the world is purely that – merely an enabler to create wealth. It even goes further than that – when it was set up it deliberately changed the model of cascading funding through the game with the view that actually the lower leagues could fend for themselves. The Olympics though should be different – it has not come from the same commercially driven values.

There were examples of the true Olympic spirit during Rio – Nikki Hamblin sacrificing her race to pick up Abbey D’Agostino after they had tangled and fallen, plucky performances from the ‘Refugee’ nationality and some amazing performances for some of Britain’s younger athletes – as yet seemingly untainted by the commercial side of sport. I’m not backing a return to the days of amateur only entrants:  It’s a strange dichotomy. The Olympics are now successful because they  are a showcase of the best in (most) sport. That drives the viewing figures, it drives the investment at country level to increase the medal counts and it makes for some incredible top class competition. On the other hand, it also moves it far from its ideals. Excellence is now everything  The medal winners are rich athletes, many of them celebrities, some of whom even choose whether the Olympics is even worth fitting into their competition schedule.

My point here is not about changing the Olympics – it is increasingly a great spectacle, although the 

continuing weak stance on doping from the governing body could ruin that. Perhaps though it’s worth looking at our definition of success.  When I think of the Olympics ‘the taking part that counts’ motto is foremost in my mind. We seem to have forgotten that element in the pursuit of winning and winning increasingly at all costs.

Sportsmanship creates Inspiration
Image ©  Edson Hong

When I think of great sporting memories of 2016, I think of Hamblin picking up D’Agostino , I think of the housemates Vicky Holland who fought Non Stanford  for third place and then immediately apologised to her friend for beating her, I think of the Brownlee brothers in the Triathlon Series World Championships – Ali sacrificing his own race to carry his brother over the line. The crash of the Dutch cyclist in the road race showed that actually winning wasn’t what mattered as the contestants desperately tried to find information about her rather than over celebrating their win. I even recollect Lewis Hamilton passing Magnussen’s horrific crash and going straight on the radio to ask if ‘the guy got out ok’. The focus to win is vital and makes our best athletes great to watch. However, as used to be the central tenet of the Olympics, it’s their sportsmanship makes them inspirational.

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