The Olympics always bring out the competitive spirit in me. I find my heart racing along with the athletes as they put their lifetime of training to the test for their shot at Olympic glory. For some the difference between a gold medal and despair can be as little as a few hundredths of a second. After this week’s tie for the gold medal in Women’s downhill skiing, a first in Olympic Alpine skiing history, many were suggesting that they needed to start measuring times in the thousandths of a second. Swiss watchmaker Omega has been measuring Olympic time since 1932 and claims that their technology can be accurate to the millionth of a second but the level of accuracy for each sport is determined by the corresponding federation. Whatever the measure of time, success or failure for each of these athletes can come down to the slightest nuance during their final performance.
During the last Summer Olympics I wrote a post about how some athletes have practiced failure as a process in order to become more successful – Practicing Failure: Lessons from Michael Jordan & Olympic Athletes on Failure & Success. With the level of competition so high, winning a gold medal requires a near flawless execution during the final round. With the Winter Olympics, more so than the Summer games, small mistakes can cause extreme injury whether falling out of the air or landing on ice.
Each day brings an injury update and revised tallies of the medal count by country. Do we have more or less than they do? How many gold medals do we have? I will admit that I don’t have a fully thought through example of what the scorecard should be but I know it needs to be one that better captures the essence of the Olympic athlete.
Over the last few days I have glimpsed moments of that essence and was proud of the athletes who willingly shared it with the world. We have seen their surprising victories, their spectacular failures and their shocking withdraws.
American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg unexpectedly won the first gold medal of the 2014 Sochi Olympics doing a trick he had never done before in the Snowboard Slopestyle competition. In fact, he had never done the “Holy Crail” trick before in his life. When asked about the trick he said “I had no idea I was even going to do a 1620 in my run until three minutes before I dropped. It’s kind of what I’m all about.” An Olympic athlete is confident enough in his skills that he tries a trick that he has never done before – and he wins the gold medal!
On the other side of the coin, Men’s figure skater Jeremy Abbott felt the agony of defeat as he crashed during last night’s short program competition. You could see Jeremy’s nervousness before he took to the ice to begin his routine. After his hard fall the announcers and the crowd were all stunned as he lay for what seemed an eternity. In the post interview Jeremy admitted that he didn’t know what he should do after his fall. As he got to his feet the crowd started cheering and clapping to the beat of the still playing music. With the energy of the crowd Jeremy went on to finish his routine with poise. Everyone in the area and watching on TV was proud of him for having the courage to finish his routine.
Russian four-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko shocked the hometown crowd when he withdrew from the final men’s skating competition. During the interview Plushenko mentioned that he had hurt his back the previous day while practicing and it was apparent that he was still in pain after an attempted jump in his warm up exercises. The camera captured how he winced from extreme pain. In responding to an interviewer’s question after his withdraw he had to remind everyone that – he is human, just like us, he’s not a robot. Struggling to hold back tears Plushenko admitted that he was about to cry as he left the ice knowing that this would be his final attempt at an Olympic medal.
Two-time gold medal winner Shaun White summed it up perfectly, “it just wasn’t my day.” He went on to say “I don’t think it makes or breaks my career. It’s just one night.” White came up short of a medal in Soshi when he placed fourth place in the halfpipe competition. What makes it more difficult is that White actually had the highest score of the competition but unfortunately it was in the qualifying rounds and not the finals. [See his NBC interview]
After all of the practice and the labyrinth of qualifying events that these athletes have been through to get to the Olympics the language that we (and the media) seem to gravitate toward is success or failure in winning a medal. Is that really what it boils down to – success or failure? The binary option of one or the other seems woefully inadequate to capture the essence of being an Olympic athlete. They may have failed to win a medal but they are still an Olympic athlete, they are still at the pinnacle of their sport.
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