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I feel I should preface this post by making a few comments.  First, the opinions expressed here are my own and not that of any organization I may belong to or be employed by.  Also, this post is not anti-Olympics or Russia although it would be hard to argue it wasn’t critical of the Russian elite.  This post is however for people and for athletes – Russian, Canadian and all other.  It is simply about remembering why we have an Olympics in the first place.

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I should warn you right up front that some will find this a bit of a downer.  It’s not an article about what an Olympics should be about, but it needs to be said.  An Olympics should be about athletes and the great performances that remind us of what we are capable of through dedication and passion for what we do.  An Olympics is also about the struggle and challenges one faces to be the best they can be.  What the Olympics should be about is precisely why I am writing this piece and also why I have waited until the conclusion of the Games before posting it.  Quite apart from anti-gay legislation and other human rights offenses, there are serious issues with how Russia hosted the Olympics.

Let me start with the good.  The most positive and shining impression I have of Russia is solely as a result of the volunteers.  English is very different from Russian and it takes some practice to learn even a few words and yet, you could not enter or exit a venue, a cafeteria or a transportation hub without being welcomed and wished a good day by someone who has learned your language.  To be frank, I found it absolutely charming and it very definitely affected my experience in Russia for the better.  People are people, no matter what colour, language, political system or corner of the globe, and these wonderful people made us welcome.

The facilities were also very impressive.  The sliding centre for example, was (and is) beautiful.  The roofline is punctuated with giant laminate wood beams that flow like a wave over the entire start area as they do over the timing building and other start houses.   I would estimate the cost of a single beam at several hundred thousand dollars if not more, but this is where it starts to fall down for me.  From the first moment our team visited Sochi a year ago for our test event, it was painfully obvious that the facilities would likely end up mothballed within the decade or require significant further and likely ongoing investment to sustain whether they get used or not – and I’d imagine not.

With respect to the support walls above and beside the track, they have been constructed vertically as opposed to having a negative camber.  And so, according to those who know more about it than I, over time will slowly begin to fail.  The relatively few drainage holes in the walls, some dry and some flowing like a stream, is also a concern.  I understand there are similar issues with regard to the ski jumping venue.  What trumps all of this of course is the fact that it’s very unlikely the World Cup circuit will make Sochi a regular stop after they host the World Championships in three years time which has already been determined.  Last February a bobsledder mentioned to me it cost him approximately 6000 Euros to get his sled to Sochi from Munich – not a truckload of bobsleds, one bobsled.  In all honesty, I don’t know how feasible it is for the Russians to use the facility let alone the World Cup circuit.

$50 billion is more than what it cost to host all other Winter Olympics combined and how can this be justified?

How did we come to have a Winter Olympics in such a warm climate in the first place?  I saw an American news program in which a number of people described Putin as more like a mob boss than a President.  I have personally seen no evidence that he gave friends multi-billion dollar contracts to construct Games facilities or infrastructure.  I haven’t seen or heard evidence of any illegalities at all.  For me it just comes down to money, and to be clear, spending a lot of money on an Olympics, I believe is justified.  I think it inspires our youth to get out there and try something new.  Some of them even become Olympians themselves.  Most don’t of course but if they find a sport or activity that they love to do, then what a wonderful gift.  I think of money invested in sport as preventative health care and as such, what a bargain it is!  But $50 billion is more than what it cost to host all other Winter Olympics combined and how can this be justified?

Our time last year in Rosa Khutor (the town in the mountains from which you access the sliding venue and athlete villages) exposed us to a less fortunate working class of Russians but even if there were no poor people at all in the country, the expense is ludicrous.  The average Ethiopian household for example, earns less than $300 per year – should we ask them if $50 billion makes sense?  I’m not at all unsympathetic to the plight of homosexual people in Russia but the reported three openly gay bars in Sochi makes me think this issue isn’t in the same ballpark as the poor who have watched their government build a train at a cost of $65000 per linear foot!  The gap between rich and poor in Russia is already considered to be one of the biggest in the world.  Spending $9 billion for a single track running an hour inland from the coast means someone is getting very, very rich in the face of this growing problem.

Spending so much money to host the Olympics is offensive and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t.  If I wasn’t in favour of having the Olympics rotate amongst a number of predetermined host cities, I certainly am now.  The Olympics have always been about athletes and their performances and inspiring the youth of the world.  You could have held the women’s gold medal hockey game anywhere and we’d still be talking about the goal post and the comeback.  I’ve enjoyed every moment of the Olympic competition because of people, because of the athletes, because of the support staff and because of the volunteers, all of which are a bargain in comparison to the inspiration they provide.

 I’ve enjoyed every moment of the Olympic competition because of people, because of the athletes, because of the support staff and because of the volunteers…

I’ve even heard a few people express disappointment that more athletes didn’t use the platform to address the Russian anti-gay laws.  Amateur athletes in my opinion do a disproportionately high amount of work for a number of wonderful charities, but when it’s time to compete, athletes should be left to compete.  It’s up to the rest of us to let our views be known as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t.  We should complain less about athletes not taking a stand if in the same breath we gush about how beautiful the Olympic park is.  An obscene amount of money was spent to show the world a new and modern Russia and we’ve been distracted by the fact you can read the score of the hockey game on the roof of the arena.  We need to take a very close look at how we conduct this great event to keep it the celebration of sport and youth that it is meant to be.

I came across this via twitter and specifically @ToddDevlin so thanks Todd for the heads up. All I know about Mike Nellis (@96Nellis) is that he’s in his last year at Colonel By SS in Ottawa and is a budding baseball/sports journalist. When I read his article it struck me that this was a young man remembering that there is a reason why we participate in sports in the first place. It’s a very important thing to remember and I thought you said it very well Mike. And you also hit on a point I’ve made several times before on this blog – that fun is actually an integral part of being your best. Thanks for letting me repost it here…

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MY MINDSET WHEN PLAYING SPORTS, ITS DRASTIC CHANGE
by Mike Nellis

Sport is a very intriguing animal. It was originally designed as a way for people to stay in shape and have fun, but it has since evolved into something much more – a competitive “game” that is taught with a tone that sets the bar very high for young athletes, in turn having an effect that took its toll on me.

As a kid, I took hockey very seriously. I’d become frustrated and let emotions get the best of me in losing or negative situations – this became apparent to me as a 2nd year Bantam as I started to understand something; that hockey and sports in general are for the point of having fun. The problem with that is while I was aware of my problem, I was unable to do anything to fix the problem on my own.

Once I was in my Minor Midget year, I was contemplating quitting the game at around 1/3rd of the way through the season, because I was no longer having fun on the ice. I was ridiculously hard on myself and found that I was in increasingly worse moods after coming home from the arena.

Something had to be done in order for me to continue with hockey. So after seeing a sports psychologist, I decided to come into my 2nd year of Midget with a different attitude. An attitude that’s less intense – if something negative happens, then so be it. I also dropped down from competitive to house league, which put me playing with a lot more friends that I grew up playing with. All in all, it was a good year that resulted in a trip to the league semis.

This year, my team has played 4 league games, so far going 1-2-1 – although we’re a much better team than our record indicates (cliche, I know). Our one tie came against Russell, a game I played after being on the ice for 5 straight hours of refereeing, with about 9 or 10 blisters on my feet.

Thinking about it, I played the best game that I have in the past 3 to 4 years, and had the most fun playing the game in that 3 or 4 year span as well – to top it off, I scored the game-tying goal with about 4 minutes to go.

With my new attitude, this could be the best year of hockey that I ever play when it comes to attitude and bonding. There is the lingering pressure of being a leader as I am a 3rd-year player on the Gloucester Centre Midget A team, but instead of worrying about it, I’m embracing it and adding it into the balance that makes hockey so fun for me these days.

“I played the best game that I have in the past 3 to 4 years, and had the most fun playing the game in that 3 or 4 year span as well.”

Everyone should have this attitude. Not only for their last few years of hockey like myself, but with every sport they play and every year that they play it. From personal experience I can say that it makes the whole idea of playing sports so much more appealing. The tricky part is adding a competitive element to this attitude and balancing it out.

If I end up coaching a hockey team in the next few years, I’ll let the players know that they have to be enjoying the sport that they play. If they find themselves playing for reasons other than fun or with too much negativity, they need to find an alternative way of thinking. Don’t quit a game that you’ve attached yourself to – or at least don’t quit right away – try to find a way that’ll make you be giddy to hit the field/court/rink.

If more people followed this philosophy, I think that there would be much less of a negative opinion of competitive sport within society.

I was recently given a copy of Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs & Reflections on the World of Sports by Bob Latham. My first impression, admittedly based solely on the title and not being familiar with Latham’s column in Sports Travel magazine, was that it might not be a great fit for Sport At Its Best.  But as I read, I began to see how Latham views sport in a much bigger context, one that goes well beyond who wins and who loses.

Yes there were essays about fun topics like, if you could go back in time to a particular sporting event, which one would you choose?  And yes it’s also a book about sport in other venues or parts of the World that you might not otherwise come in contact with but I think ultimately it’s a book about the truism that the real story and the real value is often a little less obvious.  For example,

“In tennis, the manner in which the victor and the vanquished approach the net and exchange greetings may tell me something about them.  But if the camera cuts away to girlfriends, boyfriends, coaches or celebrities in the crowd, we miss pivotal parts of the moment that we wouldn’t miss by being there.  Is the body language frosty?  Do the players make eye contact on their way to the net?  The graciousness of Roger Federer comes out when you see him console early-round opponents, not just the better-known later-round ones.”

The payoff for being a collection of short stories is that it’s easy to read – Latham makes his point and then moves on to another time and place.  The main reason I would recommend the book however, is because it speaks to something missing in the North American mainstream sports media, which is true variety.  Most people are so much into the local professional sports that you need to really dig deep into the sports section to find the first article about anything else.  If you’re someone who likes something different, you’ll like this book.  If you’re one of those people that really likes your home team and little else, then snap out of it!  There’s a whole world of incredible sports, events, and athletes that you might find fascinating.

For me personally, I really enjoyed watching last years World Cup of rugby.  As big and strong and fast as the athletes are, they also have a respect for the game and their opponents that comes out in a way that you don’t often see.  Here’s another quote from Winners & Losers,

“I wish that sportsmanship and respect for your opponent weren’t antiquated notions.  In that regard, I wish that all youth sports teams throughout the world had seen these traits exhibited at the Rugby World Cup in Lyon, France.  There, top-ranked New Zealand played the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, Portugal.  After an overwhelming victory by New Zealand, players from both teams stayed on the pitch to kick a soccer ball around – New Zealand’s world-famous rugby stars playing pick-up soccer against the Portugal unknowns; it was quite a sight.

“I wish that all sports in the world had the ethos of rugby, a sport in which the eventual world champions, South Africa – after eliminating Fiji from the tournament – remained on the field for some 15 minutes while Fiji saluted and then entertained the crowd with a Fijian war chant, so that the two teams could leave the field together.”

106. Kirani James

If you don’t recognize the name, Kirani James is the 19 year old from the island nation of Granada who won the 2012 Olympic gold medal in the 400m.  I first noticed James in the semi-finals of the same event, a race James won that also saw the elimination of “the Blade Runner”, Oscar Pistorius.  At the race’s conclusion, James approached Pistorius in what appeared to be a prearranged meeting to exchange race name tags.  I really appreciated the fact that although James was advancing to the Olympic final, the biggest stage of his young career, he still saw the significance of what Pistorius had done and wanted to acknowledge and be a part of that.

This video is from the year prior.  James was the defending World outdoor champion at the time but had just lost in the final of an indoor event.  In the course of this interview, James is given ample opportunity to blame anything other than his own performance for the the loss but chooses not to.  Seeing this has made me an even bigger fan of Kirani James and it’s my hope that the athletes I coach will watch this and see the strength of character displayed by this very young but accomplished champion.

In my opinion, the Paralympic Games have the potential to be even more inspiring than the Olympic Games so I’ve been trying to catch as much of the action as I can.  Because the television coverage is limited to summary shows (missed opportunity for both the viewers and the networks), I’ve been supplementing my twitter account to get results and articles about the various events.  Some of the people I would suggest following are @CDNParalympics, @DrTardif (Chef de Mission, Canadian Team) and @elizabethwy (assistant Chef).

I’ve also just started following @WCBballCanada and was pleasantly surprised to see Patrick Anderson has come out of retirement and is competing with the Canadian team in London.  By all accounts Patrick hasn’t missed a beat and is leading Team Canada in their pursuit for gold.  In fact, the first tweet I read mentioned that Patrick had scored the first triple-double in Canadian Paralympic Basketball history with 29 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in their victory against Great Britain.

For more about Patrick Anderson, including an interview and a piece I wrote a few years back when I first met Patrick (on the basketball court), follow the links below.

Go Canada and go Patrick!

http://wp.me/pHILB-b7

http://wp.me/pHILB-bn

104. Kilometer 17.

First printed in the Running Room magazine, July/August 2012 issue, this is a very beautifully written and heart-felt piece by a friend of mine who’s one of the founding members of the Calgary Run for Water.  I’ll let Joline talk about the run and I’ll just mention that I’m very proud to have this article on Sport At Its Best because it describes one of the ways in which sport can make a difference in our communities and in our world – as a vehicle for social change.  Thanks so much Joline!

*****

The number of syllables in a haiku poem. The “coming of age” age if you’re at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The atomic number of chlorine. To be sure, “17” is many things, but for this runner, it has become more than the hardest kilometre of the half-marathon.

Kilometre 17. I’m not yet a marathoner, so I can’t speak for anything beyond 21.1, but I can say that kilometre 17 of my first half-marathon was where my desire had it out with my pain. As was my luck- and the course designer’s genius- there was a hill at kilometre 17. “Will yourself to do this, Joline, and dare your body to follow,” was my only recourse at kilometre 17. At that point in a half marathon, I knew the pain was nearly over, and it was at kilometre 17 where I found out what I was truly made of. I discovered how much I want that which I claimed to want. Soon, it was all over and I found myself standing at the beer tent with a cold one in my hand, smiling about how great the experience was.

There is, however, one kilometre 17 I’ve seen in my life which clearly does not fit this trend of jubilant celebration. I found it 12 000 feet up a mountainside in southern Ethiopia. This kilometre 17 was one in the journey of several young girls that I met, who were responsible to fetch water for their families. As I stood in the hot sun, looking across the verdant Great Rift Valley, I marveled at their kilometre 17. It was only the halfway mark; their journey then demanded that they haul the water 17 km down the mountain. For the unlucky ones, the trip would happen a second time in the afternoon of the same day.

“As I stood in the hot sun, looking across the verdant Great Rift Valley, I marveled at their kilometre 17.”

I began to think differently about my kilometre 17. I have had the luxury and, some might say, the insanity, to sign up for an event that rewards effort with celebration and accomplishment. Those Ethiopian girls are rewarded with simple survival for their efforts. A mere twice a year, I see a kilometre 17 and I feel entitled to be proud of what I have accomplished. It is a milestone for me, a big deal.

And what of those whose survival depends on seeing a few kilometre 17’s every day? In watching the work of HOPE International, the development agency with whom I visited Ethiopia, it was clear to me that I was not being told the whole story. I hear of global water issues, and I hear of some of the solutions. I knew- as you might- that when a girl’s village has access to clean water, she becomes healthier. Her family grows healthier food, and water-borne diseases are nearly, if not entirely, eradicated. Hours in a day which were once spent hauling water, are now freed up for her to possibly go to school, if her parents don’t shuffle her into another task for family survival. Micro-enterprises may appear in her village and her family may gain a means of sustaining themselves. What I hadn’t considered- and this is the part that I needed to travel 12 000 feet up the mountain to discover- is that a child’s safety and dignity and, sometimes, his or her life is preserved when a village receives access to water. You see, every kilometre 17 that a girl sees in a day means that she is 17 000+ metres away from her home, often deep in a forest, perhaps within the reach of harm. Incidents of rape and kidnapping are not uncommon for the women, girls and boys who fetch water; it is a risk taken daily for survival’s sake. On that mountainside, I discovered what the village faucet means for the person who thinks nothing of kilometre 17 and everything of safely getting back home with the water she was sent to get.

“When I see kilometre 17, I consider it a grand gift that my only real concerns are the stitch in my side and the burn in my hip flexors.”

I want more people to not have to see kilometre 17, unless it’s in a race. I want individuals and families and gardens and villages to thrive because they have a faucet only metres away from their homes. When I see kilometre 17, I consider it a grand gift that my only real concerns are the stitch in my side and the burn in my hip flexors. I want to honour the efforts of those who I met in the hills of Ethiopia, by working toward a solution to their circumstance. Join me- and a thousand other Calgarians- in the Calgary Run For Water on Saturday September 8th, 2012. Leaving Eau Claire, we will cover unique 5K and 10K routes along the Bow River, raising funds and awareness for those who survive only because of the Kilometre 17s that they face.

Joline Olson is an educator who cares about the world. She is a board member and race director for the Calgary Run For Water- see http://calgary.runforwater.ca  Joline lives passionately, seeking to let her head hit the pillow each night with as little regret as possible.

As the coach of the Canadian skeleton team, every once in a while I come across a book that I think everyone on the team would benefit from.  This time it’s “Chariots and Horses” by Jason Dorland.

Jason was a member of the Canadian 8-man rowing crew that finished 6th at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.  On the surface you may ask why you would want a group of Olympic medal-hopefuls to read a book written by an athlete who didn’t live up to his own (and the team’s collective) expectations.  In fact, there are a few really good reasons.

First, it’s a very candid account of some of the very harsh realities of amateur sport – namely, that not everyone wins, and at some point, it’s all over.  One of my all-time favourite quotes is that of Wayne Gretzky when asked why he always played for team Canada every time he was asked.  “Because some day they won’t ask.”  I feel it’s important to make sure athletes are aware of the fact that representing their country is both a privilege and a limited time offer.  One can’t just be ‘going through the motions’ and expect to reach their full potential.  At the Olympic level, you need to work very hard at all aspects of sport, not the least of which is the mental side, and this is where the book really hits the mark.

Ever since he began in the sport of rowing, Jason had been taught that there is really only one goal – to win.  As discussed in previous posts like Why Do We Compete?, everyone tries to win but what Jason talks about is much more unforgiving.  The t-shirt slogan, “second is the first loser” typified what Jason believed.  There was no room for personal bests or raising your game to achieve the next level.  It was just about winning and nothing else to the extent that Jason admits wanting to physically pummel his opponents sitting in the rowing shells across from him.

As mentioned, Jason’s crew ended up finishing 6th in the final in Seoul and for over a decade, it was a very difficult and emotional pill to swallow.  But that experience was what started Jason on the path to a very valuable realization.  In his words, “the ultimate paradox in coaching, and in life for that matter, is that when we focus less on winning we increase our chances of improving our performance and ultimately winning more often.”  It was quite a journey that Jason endured to arrive at his conclusion but it’s how he now coaches the next generation of young rowers – and the results speak for themselves.

I enjoyed this book immensely for how well and how candidly it was written, but because it deals with the topic of mindset and the importance of coming to an understanding of what allows you to achieve your best possible performance, I’ve ordered a copy for each of the athletes I coach.  It’s not a common thing to find a book that addresses this aspect of sport.  Neither is it common to hear the perspective of the one that didn’t win, when in reality, they are often the ones who have learned the most from their experiences.

Congratulations Jason and thank you for sharing this great perspective.

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