This is the presentation I made to the 3rd Session of Olympic Medalists at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia, Greece a few weeks ago. If you’re a regular reader of Sport At Its Best then you’ll recognize a lot of the material. It’s a long one but it does summarize a lot of what this blog is about. Hope you enjoy it.
I’ll begin with a story. A friend of mine named Bob and I were talking about sportsmanship and the value of sport and it reminded him of a time when he attended Ridley college in southern Ontario.
“…there was a football match being played against our arch rival. Well, you have heard of the old sleeper play were you take three players off the field and send back two into the huddle hoping the opposition doesn’t notice the missing player crouched down near the sideline pretending to be part of the crowd. Well this is what our team did and it looked like the trick was going to work. When out of the crowd near this crouching lad came this bustling old man, dressed in his suit and black teaching gown and wielding his cane high above his head. He gave the lad a couple of good licks with the cane while yelling in his booming voice,” We don’t play like this at Ridley! We don’t play like this at Ridley!” It was the dreaded head master. Well whether we won the game or not I cannot recall but the lesson of play the game fairly and properly, as I said before, was reinforced and has lasted me a lifetime.”
There are undoubtedly those who would argue that the old sleeper play isn’t breaking any rules and getting caught by it is a valuable lesson in its own right. Times have certainly changed since Bob attended Ridley college. Hitting a kid with a cane is a bit outdated but good leadership is not. The point of this story is actually twofold. First, I think it takes some courage to interrupt a high school football game to make a point about actually earning what you achieve. I worry that there aren’t enough people around these days that would risk being embarrassed in front of a student population to make the point.
Second, Bob will be turning 76 years old this year. This is a lesson that has lasted Bob 60 years. And in his own words Bob has “tried to live his life by that standard.” To me this is a very powerful illustration of the impact one person can have on the lives of others. What an absolute privilege it is to be in a position to have such an effect.
Before we can discuss the promotion of positive social values, we first need to understand the purpose of sport in our society, the benefit of sport for our youth as well as the lessons that sport has to teach. We also need to understand why we participate in the first place. In the world of business, it’s the norm to have a mission statement and a number of value statements that guide the actions of a company. With respect to individuals, most people probably have a rough idea, but it is a valuable exercise to actually sit down and determine what you stand for, what your values are and what message you want to project.
What is the Purpose of Sport?
Why does sport exist? Is it just to see who was faster, higher, or stronger or does it actually serve a purpose? What about for your kids? Would you want them participating in sport even if you knew they could never qualify for an Olympic Games, let alone win a medal? Even for most Olympians, the answer to this last question is ‘yes’. I believe Olympians are great supporters of sport because they’ve experienced first hand the great joy that sport can be in a person’s life. For a young person, finding something that you love to do that is active and healthy for both the mind and body is a great gift.
Sport is also a great teacher of values – dedication, perseverance, sportsmanship, and teamwork, to name only a few, are all lessons learned through sport. As a member of your community, we need to be aware of the purpose of sport for our youth and encourage the positive lessons. Jim Peplinski, who is a former captain of the Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League believes that if you focus on the personal development of kids, you actually get better athletes as well.
“Sport can make people great athletes… Or sport can make athletes great people. If you approached sport with the goal to do your best and enjoy it, would you play longer? Would you be better rounded? Would you get more out of sport? Would you be a better person? And maybe become a great athlete too? I believe so. Get good at a sport, be a better athlete. Get good at what makes you good at a sport, be a better person. You win both ways.”
What is the Purpose of Olympic Sport?
Why do Olympians compete? Is it for the money or fame? For the most part it’s not about money. There are certainly exceptions like some downhill skiers, some track athletes who can make in the millions of dollars but the overwhelming majority of Olympic athletes make very little money. In Canada for example, a reporter for the Globe and Mail found that of all the Canadian gold medalists from Vancouver/Whistler, excluding teams such as the men’s and women’s curling teams and the men’s hockey team which are all professional, more than half of them listed their expected income for 2010 as being $25000 – exactly the amount given to gold medal winners from the Canadian government. That’s just the gold medal winners! The majority of Olympians aren’t as lucky and without question, amateur athletes would do much better financially if they weren’t athletes.
As for fame, if you’re good enough to win a medal then you do get a lot of attention for a short period of time, once every four years. Again, there are certainly exceptions but in my opinion, neither fame nor fortune are great motivators for Olympic athletes.
So why compete? This is a question that you really need to ask yourself. Many athletes might answer very quickly that they compete “to win”. The more Olympians I ask this question, the more I’ve come to realize that the better you are, the more it becomes about the challenge. I believe what motivates Olympians is the challenge and trying to be the best, knowing that failure is a possibility. If there was no possibility of failure, there would be no reward in success. If it was just about winning, wouldn’t we seek out weaker opponents and not the biggest stage, which is the Olympic Games?
Bonnie Blair competed for the United States in long track speed skating in four Olympic Games beginning in 1984 in Sarajevo and ending in 1994 in Lillehammer. In that time she won five gold and one bronze medal, amazingly defending the gold medal she won in the 500m in Calgary for two more successive Olympics, an extremely rare accomplishment. This is a woman who has done a lot of winning in her career but if you ask her, she’ll tell you that one of her most satisfying moments as an Olympian was finishing 4th in the 1500m at the Lillehammer Games.
“In Lillihammer, given the three races I took part in, the 500, the 1000 and the 1500, the 1500 was my best race. It was a personal best by over a second, it was an American record, faster than I had gone ever, so to me that was like winning a gold medal even though it was 4th. Now I don’t want to take away from the two gold medals that I won because those were thrilling and exciting races but if I have to look at pure athleticism, and goals of skating there at the games, that was my best race and I was 4th. And I was just as proud of that 4th place finish as I was of the gold medals.”
At that point I asked her if she would go so far as to say it was her best race in terms of her personal satisfaction? “Yes, yes,” was her answer.
“I look at that 1500 and that was the best I had and it was 4th and that was something that I was really proud of. When I was in the media room and they were throwing microphones in front of me and they were saying, “aren’t you disappointed?” and, “you just missed a bronze!” and it wasn’t [disappointing for me]. I was very happy with what I did.”
Olympic sport is about being the best you can be – the pursuit of excellence. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the best in the world then being your best might be good enough to win an Olympic medal but your motivation and ultimately your satisfaction will relate to your personal performance relative to your ability and the challenge you face. Young people need to know this. There are a lot of mixed messages out there as to why people do what they do.
How Do We Promote Olympic Values?
There are many different ways to promote positive social values. You can speak to schools about your experiences or you can support an existing charitable organization or perhaps start your own! Regardless of how you go about it, there are two steps that are necessary to make it happen, 1) believe in the importance of promoting positive social values and 2) lead by example.
1. Believe in the Importance of Olympic Values
Living in Calgary has afforded me the opportunity to see first-hand that many of the most successful athletes from my country are that way at least in part because of values and/or attitudes about sport and about life. I’ve also had the pleasure of competing against some of the great athletes of my sport (skeleton) because of their belief in sportsmanship and because of their attitude, as described by the credo, “may the best one win.”
When I think about great sportsmanship and great champions, I think of a guy by the name of Gregor Staehli. Gregor is a skeleton slider from Switzerland and to begin with, he is the most successful athlete in the history of the sport I competed in. In all, he has won a total of 8 World Championship medals as well as two Olympic medals. These are astounding totals considering they have one race a year to determine who is the World / Olympic Champion. I won’t try to guess how many World Cups he’s won over the years but it’s a lot. Probably the single most impressive statistic about Gregor is the fact that if you averaged every one of his World Cup races over his entire career including his rookie year, he averaged a 4th place finish!
Obviously he’s been tremendously successful in his career and when you’ve won that often and for that many years, what value does competition still hold for you? What makes you keep training to get better? Clearly the answer has nothing to do with winning yet another medal or trophy. The answer, I believe, is the challenge. And this is a very key concept – when you realize that the great joy of sport is in the challenge, then the better the competitors are, the greater the challenge, and the greater the reward if you are able to ultimately succeed.
Another way of expressing it is like this – if there was no challenge, if it was easy, there would be no reward. How exciting would it be for a guy with Gregor’s resume to beat a rival because they had a bad day? For him, is that something worth writing home about? No. So here’s the key point: when Gregor Staehli wished you luck, he truly wanted you to have your best race. Then, if you did and he beat you, that meant something. As a consequence, I can tell you first hand that it created a great atmosphere to both compete in and achieve your best in. Competing against Gregor was an honor and pleasure, and on the few occasions that I was able to beat him, he was always very sincere in his congratulations. I’d even say that after my first win at the World level, what made that experience even greater than it already was, was the support and sincere happiness that some of my competitors had for my success and Gregor was a big part of that.
As an Olympian, if you’ve lived what I’ve described, then you know first hand how important your sportsmanship and values are as well as those of your teammates and competitors is in terms of creating a sporting environment in which everyone can achieve their best in. If you have any desire to promote positive social values, you need to believe in it with respect to everything you do. As an Olympian, sport is such a big part of what you do and it’s why you have a voice in the first place so train and compete with sportsmanship and all of the values that sport teaches us.
2. Lead by Example
I talked about Bonnie Blair earlier and her successes and a performance that she was very proud of that didn’t win a medal. I was put in contact with Bonnie originally through a friend of mine named Moira who was a teammate of Bonnie’s for many years. It wasn’t until after I had interviewed Bonnie that I talked to Moira about what it was like being Bonnie’s teammate. According to Moira, Bonnie was the consummate team member and she led by example. Even as the most decorated American winter Olympian at the time, Bonnie never conducted herself as being any different or better than any other member of the team. Moira made the point that athletes these days often arrive late or leave early from training camps and that would be the last thing that Bonnie would have done.
There was one incident in particular that Moira shared with me that illustrated how Bonnie was a leader within the team. Around the time that the Berlin wall came down, it was rumored that the former East Germans had been taking performance enhancing drugs. Bonnie happened to be near by when Moira saw her results after a 500m race. Moira made that comment that although she had finished 8th, she would have finished 3rd if you “exclude everyone who was cheating.” I’m not insinuating that drug use doesn’t happen but it is a well-documented fact that successful people take responsibility for their performances and unsuccessful people look to others to find excuses. According to Moira, when Bonnie heard her comment, she made it clear, that kind of attitude was not acceptable on the U.S. team.
Moira also gave Bonnie the great compliment that the coaches had very little work to do in terms of inspiring teamwork and sportsmanship within the team because this was simply how Bonnie and certain other team members such as Dan Jansen, conducted themselves. With this in mind, I have talked to the senior athletes on the team that I coach on a number of occasions to impress upon them the importance of leadership within the team. Jon Montgomery, who won Olympic gold in skeleton in Whistler, has really taken this to heart and has truly led the team from within. It’s so much easier to get the team motivated to do a little extra work when the Olympic Champion is saying, “come on guys, let’s get to it!”
I began this presentation with a recollection of a friend from his high school days. I’ll now conclude with the story of my elementary school volleyball coach who inspired me to conduct myself according to Olympic values. Mr. Little was a teacher and volleyball coach at Bridlewood Junior Public School when I was a student there in the late ‘70’s. What was so cool about Mr. Little was that he was actually a volleyball referee at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Montreal was my first exposure to the Olympics and immediately it had a powerful effect on me. To this day I can clearly remember watching many of the events including Nadia Comaneci getting her perfect 10′s in gymnastics and Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon. I can also remember the high jump in which fellow Canadian Greg Joy won a silver medal behind Jacek Wszola of Poland but ahead of the heavily favored Dwight Stones of the United States. Watching those and many other events, I knew somehow I wanted to be a part of that. I didn’t even care what sport it would be in – they were all great.
At the time you can imagine what it was like for us on the volleyball team having a coach that had played such an important role in that event. It was pretty special. During one particular practice we were arguing as to whether a ball was in or out when Mr. Little called us over and told us about a match at the Olympics in which he had been a backup referee sitting at the official’s table immediately adjacent to the court.
As the story goes, there was a rally that ended when one team spiked the ball toward the opposing team’s baseline. Although very close to the line, the ball was out but was incorrectly called in by the line judge. The player that hit the ball actually went to the referee and explained that he had hit the ball out and that the call should be reversed. At which point a player on the opposing team, having overheard this, stepped forward and stated that he had touched the ball on the way out and that therefore the call was correct. I don’t know if Mr. Little actually said it or not but his inference was that the player who claimed to have touched the ball, hadn’t.
Whether he had or hadn’t, the interpretation is the same. There was respect for the opponent and the game and the process to the extent that both players were willing to give up a point they felt they hadn’t earned. I don’t believe Mr. Little specifically stated whom the teams involved were but I understood that they were elite teams of the competition who were vying for medals.
Like my friend Bob talking about his high school football days, I don’t remember how we did as a team that year or even if we won a single game, but I remember that story. Being so enthralled by the Olympics and hearing a first-hand account from someone who was not just there, but an integral part of it, was extremely impactful to me. I remember thinking at the time ‘this is how Olympians act’ and I still feel the story is an illustration of sport at it’s absolute best. The athletes Mr. Little talked about clearly had a great deal of respect for the game, the officials, their opponents and the process. And it’s also a great expression of the value they placed on the relationship between how hard you work for something and your own personal satisfaction. On their respective journeys to the medal podium, neither wanted to accept a single point that wasn’t earned.
This story remains an inspiration for me and also like Bob, I have tried to live my life by this standard. My belief is that it was no coincidence that the athletes in Mr. Little’s story were World-leading athletes vying for medals at an Olympic Games. This is a very personal story about the power that the Olympics have to shape social values. If you are an Olympian then you have been given an opportunity to impact the lives of others simply because of what the Olympics represents. Take that very seriously and share your passion in a positive way.
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