I have always enjoyed watching the Olympics. I hope to experience them in person one day. The Olympic Games encompass everything I love about sports: excellence in athletic ability, underdogs defying odds, newcomers, veterans, national pride, international unity, and all those surprising funny/heartwarming/inspirational/jaw-dropping moments that can’t be choreographed and stay with you long after the closing ceremonies. The 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, have been no exception. They have also taught me some things. Here are five of the lessons I’ve learned watching these Olympics:
Lesson One: You have to be brave. Ice is hard and slippery. Obvious, I know, but I feel I must emphasize this. Many athletes (with the exception of the curlers—please forgive me Canadians) are risking catastrophic injury each time they compete. Ask the snowboarder who had to take his turn after watching the previous competitor being removed from the course on a stretcher subsequent to crashing into the wall of the half-pipe—the force of impact popping his goggles off his helmet and sending them alone down the decline. That’s bravery. That’s when competition takes courage. The heights to which they jump and from which they must land, the speeds at which they move across snow or ice, the sharpness of the skates that could cut down to an artery or vein during a collision and consequent entanglement with other competitors (ask the speed skater who knows this firsthand), there is so much potential for disaster and so small a margin for error that you must be brave to compete in the winter games.
Lesson Two: Never give up. You can fall and win. Ask the speed skating relay team that saw one of their teammates fall, almost got lapped, then fought to not just get back in the race, to not just catch up to the pack, to not just take the lead, to not just win by a large margin, but to break the record for that event as well and then go on to win the gold medal in the finals. Ask the skier who fell ungracefully into the snow before the first minute of the race was over, had to detangle himself from two other racers, and then went on to win the gold. Ask all the snowboarders who won a medal even though they fell on all but their best run. Falling only leads to failure if you refuse to get up.
Lesson Three: The best aren’t always rewarded, so make sure you are internally motivated. Ask the relay team that won the B final and broke a world record in the process—and not just them, but also the team that crossed the finish line second. Athletes in the B final are not competing for a medal (though in this case the winners got bronze because so many people in the A final were disqualified/penalized). But just think, the winners of the B final had the fastest time of the night—a world-record-breaking time that was faster than that of the A final (and gold medal) winners. However, they were not racing for a medal. They could have phoned it in. Instead they were motivated to give their best and bested even the gold medal winners. In a race that some may wonder at the point of, they worked hard enough to break a world record. They fought to win even though they had no reason to expect any reward, and although they skated faster than the time that earned gold, they walked away with a bronze. They skated faster than the official winners, but in terms of medals walked away with less, but they were now world record holders, and they seemed ecstatic.
Lesson Four: Don’t cheat—not for yourself and not for your country. Russia was banned from the PyeongChang Olympic Games because they systematically cheated in Sochi. Russian athletes who hadn’t been caught using prohibited substances had to petition to compete and, if accepted, formed a contingency called “the Olympic athletes from Russia,” which is an awkward-to-say moniker (just ask all the sports commentators who stumbled over it). They did not enter the opening ceremonies under their country’s flag. Nor did they wear their country’s colors when they competed. And many felt they shouldn’t have been allowed to participate this year at all. So I wasn’t completely surprised to hear that one of the Olympic athletes from Russia had failed a drug test. I was however surprised to find that he was a member of the curling team—a sport which I find it hard to call a sport since you don’t break a sweat doing it (again, sorry Canadians). I can’t imagine what his motivation for cheating was since I can’t fathom what advantage it gave him. But that’s perhaps the saddest lesson of all, that some people find it so hard to be honest they’ll choose dishonesty when nothing discernible tempts them in that direction.
Lesson Five: Age and time do not have to be barriers. Don’t let your youth or years stop you from doing what you want to do. Whatever your dream or goal, keep moving towards it. You might not be as fast or wise or skilled or strong or experienced as your competitors or cohorts, but you should try anyway. I’ve watched as competitors and medalists broke records for being the youngest and the oldest in their disciplines. The Olympics include a spectrum of ages and achievements. Being young or old didn’t stop athletes from trying and succeeding. Being older also didn’t stop some athletes from picking up a new sport just so they could be a winter Olympian. Just ask they guy from Togo who competed at the last summer Olympics and then picked up cross country skiing so he could participate in the winter Olympics (and again enter shirtless carrying his nation’s flag for the opening ceremonies). And just because you haven’t reached your goal yet doesn’t mean you’re never going to. Just ask the two skaters who tried and failed to make the US Olympic team competing in Sochi and then came to PyeongChang and shone so brightly.
I hope that once these Olympic Games are over I’ll continue to live out the lessons watching them has reinforced—that I’ll be brave, never give up, stay motivated even with no promise of a reward, have integrity, and never let anything (not age or time or anyone—including myself) convince me not to go for it—whatever it happens to be.