Take one look at Canadian freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau’s face today when the final results flashed on the scoreboard and showed his name in first place. Take one look and you will immediately know what the Olympics are about: the athletes. Bilodeau had the weight of the country on his shoulders. Canada entered this Olympics in a unique position; it was the only country that had not won a gold medal while hosting multiple Games. As a favorite on the second day of the games, many tapped Bilodeau as a person that could break that streak. And he did, reminding us in the process that as much as a country wants to succeed, these games really come down to individuals. The Olympics are about those athletes that rise to the occasion and win. And the Olympics are also about those athletes that weren’t even given the opportunity to compete.
A recent trend in track and field is for countries to not send every qualifying athlete to the Olympics. In track and field, the IAAF sets the entry standards for the Olympics. However, several countries have set even higher standards for their own athletes. Nowhere is this making more headlines than in the United Kingdom. Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics, has defended this decision by spewing clichés such as “No-one ever jumped higher by lowering the bar . . . these higher standards mean those selected will be expected to make finals not simply to compete. We are looking for contenders, not pretenders.”
Van Commenee’s efforts are turning the Olympics from a competition about the athletes into a competition about winning. He is not the first to try and change what the Olympics are about. Jimmy Carter turned the 1980 Olympics into a political statement. And, the International Olympic Committee has made the modern Games as much about money as it is about the athletes. The United Kingdom also isn’t alone in judging its success solely on the number of medals collected. In preparation for hosting the 2010 Olympics, Canada started the Own the Podium program. After disappointments in Beijing, the USA Track and Field Association started Project 30 to help Team USA win 30 track and field medals at the 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics have always been about competition, but the focus on winning alone is harmful. Everyone wants to be Alex Bilodeau, but his win doesn’t turn his twenty-nine competitors into failures. Many others had impressive performances today and should be proud of their accomplishments. Nations should focus on these performances as much as they focus on winning. For example, take a look back at Libania Grenot of Italy. In Beijing, Grenot ran a national record in the 400-meter dash semi-finals. Despite her new record, she missed making the finals. But no one considered her performance a failure. Grenot wan’t a “pretender” there to just “compete,” as van Commenee put it. Instead, she was a national record holder that went to Beijing to succeed. Grenot proudly proved herself, made her country proud, and showed the world that she deserved to be an Olympian.
Stories like this are also present in the Vancouver Games. I heard one last week while listening to an interview on CBC Radio 1 with Ghana’s first ever winter Olympian, Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong. Nkrumah-Acheampong, better known as the “snow leopard,” has little to no chance of winning. The oddsmakers list him at 500-1 odds, but he isn’t in Vancouver just to compete. He knows he likely won’t win, but he wants to place higher than his rank; a worthwhile goal that will make his country proud and show us all once again what the Olympics are about. I’m sure that no one listening to this interview thought less of Ghana for sending an athlete that has little chance of making the finals. Instead, listeners were likely happy to see the spirit of the Games come out in yet another great athlete.
When you read the headlines about each amazing gold medalist over the next two weeks, be sure to read the stories buried in the text about the other athletes that won the lesser battles. And don’t forget about the athletes that were denied the chanced to compete before the Games even began. Who will be Vancouver’s Libania Grenot? And who could have been Vancouver’s Libania Grenot, but was denied the chance to compete after a country raised its Olympic standards? These Games are about the athletes. Every deserving athlete should be given the chance to compete and make Vancouver 2010 a memorable event for the world to see.