It’s pretty easy to watch the Olympics and get caught up in all the excitement – and so we should! It’s a time of celebration and recognition of the world’s best. There are so many incredible stories of athletes that may or may not be from your home country, that may or may not have been expected to do well, and that may or may not be winners of Olympic medals.
In my career I was lucky enough to compete at two Olympics, one in which I achieved my life-long dream to win a medal and one in which I got the motivation I needed to achieve that dream. The Vancouver Olympics for me brought back some memories of Salt Lake City but probably not in the way you’d think. I finished 10th in my event in 2002 and looking back now, I’m reasonably pleased with that performance when put in to the context of where I was in my career, but at the time it was somewhat less than I had hoped for. In fact, for a while I was really down about it.
As it turned out, that experience became a very powerful motivation for me in my athletic career and therefore a valuable part of the journey. At the same time I can remember what it felt like and I know there are athletes feeling that same pit in the stomach now having just returned from Vancouver or Whistler. These athletes have dedicated years and years of their lives for one moment and the possibility of having a bad day at the worst possible time is a very harsh reality of Olympic sport.
Not performing up to your own expectations is one thing, not even getting your chance is another. The last couple of days have been pretty tough on Brian McKeever. After a long and drawn out selection process it looked like Brian would actually do what no winter athlete had done before which is to represent their nation in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But as we saw in the men’s 50 kilometer cross-country ski race, the last event of the Winter Olympic program, Brian’s coach ultimately decided to go with four of his teammates who admittedly had been having all-time Canadian best performances at these Games.
Like so many people, I’m a huge fan of Brian’s, as an athlete but maybe even more so as a person. And not surprisingly in the hours leading up to the race I had heard a lot of very heart-felt sentiment supporting Brian, some going so far as to say that the decision was wrong and should have been reversed. But what we have to remember is what was so extraordinary about this story. Brian, a legally blind skier with a condition that leaves him with only peripheral vision, had legitimately earned a spot. This was never a story about giving a blind guy a break and to have done so would change what was truly exciting about it in the first place.
Amateur sport is neither a charity nor a popularity contest. Every one of the athletes competing at the Olympics were there for good reason and the men’s cross-country team is one of the real bright spots for Canada for future winter Games. It’s the coach’s job to enter the best team in each event and if he believes it should be others instead of Brian then it’s a real shame but who are we to question it? I’m sure Brian is heartbroken but he’d also be the first to tell you he neither needs nor expects any special treatment.
I’ve come across more than a few writers talking about how some of the great stories of these Games were found off the podium and for me seeing Brian interviewed in the wake of that decision was an extremely powerful moment. It was an absolutely heartbreaking decision for many people and for none more so than Brian himself but in that moment when anyone in his situation would be filled with hurt and resentment, struggling to understand what had happened, Brian McKeever showed and immense amount of character. He said he definitely respected the decision and acknowledged that the other guys had been racing extremely well. And then he talked about coming to the Olympics to have great performances. He didn’t say it in as many words but Brian McKeever doesn’t rely on favours – he has earned everything he has achieved. You don’t win NorAm races or Paralympic medals unless you are, quite simply, very good at what you do.
He didn’t say it in as many words but Brian McKeever doesn’t rely on favours – he has earned everything he has achieved. You don’t win NorAm races or Paralympic medals unless you are, quite simply, very good at what you do.
When the commentator asked him if he thought they could have informed him earlier, giving him a chance to place blame or show his anger, he wouldn’t bite. Instead he talked about the Paralympic Games and how he’d be in the thick of some very important races in only a few weeks and how he was planning on being at his best. It struck me then that Brian was doing again what he had done all his life – having no time for self-pity. Although I’ve never met his Dad, I understand that he’s not one to have a son moping around the house for any reason, let alone a degenerative eye condition that he himself shares. It is a character trait that undoubtedly served Brian well as an athlete. It was a terrible situation he found himself in a few days ago but it’s only in our most challenging moments that we really show what we’re made of – and Brian did just that.
We’ll be watching on the 15th. Go Brian!