As the games wrap up we can all summon images of pain and joy we’ve seen over the last two weeks. After all, sport is for most athletes about losing, as there can, ultimately, be only one winner. (I know this isn’t strictly true; on a personal level I’ve lost probably 99% of the races I’ve been in, but enough of those loses have felt like wins that I’ve been able to be proud of what I’ve accomplished and not feel like I’ve wasted 15 years).
Though winning and losing help to define an important part of sport, what I believe makes it fun to watch is while athletes are striving for excellence they’re also bringing us along for the ride through virtue of their stories, personalities and performances. When we’re on our couches screaming at the TV, we enjoy a visceral sense of what athletes are feeling; our hearts pounding and stomachs in knots, we share in their journey. And so, while watching the 4x100m yesterday, I was sharing in the collective excitement had by all Canadians watching when the Canadian men won the Bronze. Seeing our guys celebrating their victory was thrilling–watching that victory being taken away due to a technicality, was torture.
Mistakes are easily made and never forgotten by those who make them, and they are what often dictate Olympic outcomes. Whether a gymnast misses a dismount, or paddler misses a boat shoot, shit happens and that is what makes sport interesting. Jared Connaughton, someone I’m privileged to say I’ve spent a bit of time with, handled yesterday’s blow with amazing poise and dignity as he took responsibility for one–literal–misstep. His act of contrition is an example of what is, to me, most exceptional about the Olympics: how athletes handle disappointment. Sure there are tears, breakdowns, crushing losses, and occasional ‘sore-losers’, but in the end, of the 10,500 athletes in London most did not win. A total of 2,300 medals were handed out, leaving 8,200 athletes who did not take home any hardware. Most of the 8,200 non-medal winners will go home with their heads held high, proud of accomplishing what so few ever even attempt: spending 10+ years of their lives on a goal that probably won’t work out.
The thing I often tell people when asked about the Olympics, is the games are a journey not a destination. What makes Olympians special isn’t when they seem to exceed human ability and run 100m in under ten-seconds or hold a Maltese Cross, it’s that they’re willing to devote so much of their lives–in many cases well over half–to something which may not ever happen. For all the Olympians with medals around their necks, there are many more that go home empty handed; and that doesn’t cover the ones that fail to make it to the games. But, at the risk of sounding cliched, those empty hands belie what they’ve won inside. For someone to be an Olympian, or even just to have earned a real shot at going to the Olympics, means they’ve put themselves in a position where their every move will be scrutinized and torn apart, where they will be lauded or ignored depending on the smallest of margins, they know this and accept it. A commitment to something that probably won’t result in anything tangible, other than some tracksuits and pictures, is its own kind of special bravery.
The London games are over and that special journey has begun again. If you liked watching the Olympics, try to follow some of those journeys a little more closely. Then, when the big show starts in Sochi, you’ll be able to appreciate a little more of the sacrifice, pain, and joy that goes into every moment of the games.