Tuesday, 31 July 2012

An Olympic Legacy?

The ambition for the Olympics has been to create 'a legacy.' No one that I have heard has actually spelled out what that legacy might actually be, but I assume that it relates to participation in sport. That seems fair enough - not enough people do enough exercise. But I wonder whether the titanic effort that we see all these sports men and women put in to having the fleeting chance to win a medal can actually be more suffocating than inspiring.

The three factors that seem to be ubiquitous to success in elite sport are time (lots of it), personal sacrifice, and pain. Natural talent comes in to it somewhere, but this is not something you can work on -you either have it or you don't. These people put themselves through physical discomfort that you and I usually take as a cue to stop. I actually heard one swimmer talk about how she had got back in to the habit of enjoying the pain.

Crikey. Not many of us have that kind of gumption. And here's a bit of the rub: for lots of people, the sport they play is their relaxation, a way of unwinding; and yet the example laid out in front of us, by all these Olympians, is that sport is about total commitment. These are totally different approaches to sport, and while I often get emotional watching others try, succeed or fail in their own heroic efforts, I do wonder how many people it inspires, and how many people it makes wallow deeper in to physical apathy, weighed down by the increasing understanding that these sports people are not just fitter than they are, they are almost a different species.

And yet, inspiration can come from strange places in sport. Let me share with you what I have seen.

I was inspired by Mark Cavendish failing to win the road race - not because it was a heroic failure, but because of the way that the team spoke about it afterwards. What rang through loud and clear, was that this group of men had sat down and decided what their best tactics for winning were, had committed to the plan completely, and given it their best go. They knew that it might not work, but were happy with their choices, each understood what their own individual role was, and put their hearts into making it happen. It didn't, and that frankly is sport. It doesn't mean that they didn't train hard enough, or that their plan was wrong, but that other factors conspired against them.

I guess the first rule of winning well is learning to lose well. This is not the same as being OK with losing. We have seen this mistake made by countless British athletes over the years, who have spoken about the good experience they have had at the big competitions, about learning lots, about doing better than they expected and so on. This misses the point a little: losing well means that you have done every thing that you can do to maximise your chances, from training to mental preparation to nutrition and so on, so that by the time you arrive at race day, there is nothing more that you could have done. Losing when you have done every thing is sport. Losing when you haven't is simply bad preparation.

At the time of writing, there have been no British Gold medals, but there have been some stellar examples of losing well. The British mens gymnasts didn't win gold, but they did win bronze, and in doing so, they improved on where they had been before, and they did this not through good luck, but through performing well, on the back of good preparation.

This is an important difference. Historically, it has seemed that a lot of British athletes have turned up in hope, but with no expectation that they would do well. This makes all the more heartening when they do succeed, but also provides an endless litany of shrugged shoulders, and 'oh wells, maybe next time.'

I imagine lots of us have been hoping that our athletes would turn up and win, but that just isn't the way that the world works. What, however, is refreshing is to see that a great many of them have clearly committed as much as they can to the cause, even though this does not mean that they win, and even though lots of them know that they won't.

What this shows us is that it is still worth while to give something your best go. That there is intrinsic value in being prepared to try, and being prepared to fail. This is something that we can all learn from.

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