Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Are We There To Win Or Represent?

Originally published on My Life Is Like A Song on August 13, 2008

PJmixer had a good comment on my pre-Olympics post that I felt justified more than a comment response.

While talking about medal predictions, he wondered whether as "true Canucks (or maybe even Brits) are we just happy to compete?"

Thanks for bringing that point up. It's a very valid point and I think there isn't an easy answer.

A few years ago, Canada changed their Olympic standards. So although our top Canadian meets the Olympic standards (and if they were the best of a different country, they would qualify for the Olympics) Canada has stricter standards and choose to not send our athlete. This is the case in the marathon at these Olympics. We have at least two men and one woman (Gitah Macharia, Matthew McInnes and Tara Quinn-Smith) who met the Olympic standard but will be staying home.

Canada's reasons are that they want to spend their resources on athletes that have a chance of finishing in the top half of the field. If every country followed this reasoning, there would be no bottom half of a field.

Every athlete's dream is to compete at the Olympics. It must be heartbreaking to be the best in your country, to best the Olympic standard and be denied the chance to compete.

There is a fine line between the best in your country and the Eddy the Eagle/Jamaican bobsled team who may be the few who attempt the sport in their countries (and perhaps didn't really train for years for that moment). These stories capture the imagination of the public and are worthy for their own reasons.

When I was younger, I qualified for the All-Ontario championships in the 3000m. I remember having to reach the Ontario standard (which I didn't in the qualifying race). After that meet, I trained even harder to get that time and did reach it.

It was my first All-Ontario competition. I was not prepared mentally for it. I didn't perform close to my best time. There was a thunderstorm and I used that as an excuse. I was lapped, but I finished it. In hindsight, I was probably shocked and discouraged to see the pace of the other competitors (back home I was one of the fast ones, now I was one of the slow ones). Coming from small town Northern Ontario down to Burlington was quite an experience. I'm sure it allowed me to dream about my future even if I didn't get the result I would have hoped for. I later competed in All-Ontario Championships in volleyball and badminton. Again, I never came close to winning (the last time I was extremely close to beating the eventual semi-finalist-4th seed), but those experiences made me the person that I am today (ok, maybe that's not a great

So what if my hometown had decided that I wasn't going to be in the top half of the field so they weren't going to send me? That last year, I went to OFSAA with the goal of winning. I thought I had a realistic shot (I ran into the girl who beat me a few months later at University - she recognized me on campus (so I guess I made an impression) and she tried to recruit me for the university team. She told me I was her hardest match until she lost her semi.)

If I had never left Northern Ontario, I would have never found out how much better I would need to be to reach the national level. I didn't have it in me to reach that level, but others from my hometown have.

One of my favourite motivational speakers Vince Poscente has a great story. When he was younger, he had a friend ask him if he wanted to go luging at Lake Placid. While there they met the Canadian luge team. They dreamed of being on the Canadian team. Many years later, the Olympics are in his hometown in Calgary. He's in the stands for the opening ceremonies. He tells the story of watching the Canadian team entering the stadium. The crowd goes nuts. He says the noise in his head went silent as he watched his buddy walk in with the Canadian team. His friend followed his dream, trained hard and made the Canadian luge team.

Vince was 26 years old at the time and he decided that he wanted to compete in the Olympics. The next Olympics were in France. Speed skiing was a demonstration sport. Vince was a recreational skier, but he had a dream. The way he tells the story is that he did what his competitors were not willing to do. That's how you get ahead (in business - as he now addresses the business world).

To make a long story short (and if you ever have the chance to hear him tell the story live, it is definitely worth it) he made the final round and had been faster than the others going into the last run. As I was listening to him tell the story (and he showed the video), I remembered it. I came home and checked my old videotapes. There it was. Not in the middle of an episode. I started recording as his turn was coming up. I was watching it live and remembered being so excited (more than 10 years later, I still had it on tape). Unfortunately, he caught an edge and did not win.

He continues the story by saying how depressed he was afterwards, until he overheard his dad on the phone telling a friend: "those Olympics Games were the greatest experience of my entire life. I'm so proud of my kid". He was proud not because of the result but because of the "journey of integrity" that it took to get there. To be able to strive to that excellence. It's the path we take to get there.

I can understand the importance of results. Countries spend a lot of money sending athletes, coaches and officials to the Olympics. We have more important issues that perhaps our money should be spent on. But the Olympics represents dreams, passion, dedication and compassion. It brings a country together with our hopes, our disappointments and our triumphs.

So although my country doesn't think that our country's best are worthy of going to the Olympic games, I disagree. I don't think that it's only about winning. It's about being the best that you can be and representing your country and that's the best that our country has at that time in that sport. Who knows how much better we can be for the next Olympics. Leaving our athletes at home doesn't help our chances next time.

(sidenote: I wrote this post last Friday before the competition began- in my next post I will comment on the media questions surrounding our lack of medals so far)

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