With the Olympic Games quickly approaching, I thought I'd share an article that I wrote just after the last winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. I know how much pressure these athletes are under and how hard it is to compete under the scrutiny of the media, fans and spectators. I'm hoping that by sharing this article many will see the Games from a different perspective this time around and revel in the optimism and hope produced from the athletes' performances. I know I will...
Reasons to Be Proud
I went into the Turin Olympic Games with the uneasy feeling that America's "heroes" were certain athletes who were a little too free in expressing their less-than-exemplary behaviors. But as the games come to a close, the United States boasts some genuine heroes that anyone can (and should) be proud of.
I do not share the majority's opinion that it was generally an unsuccessful games for Team U.S.A. They finished with twenty-five medals, twelve more than it had ever recorded at a Winter Olympics on foreign soil.
The U.S. might not have reached all the medals it had hoped for, but most of the athletes who walked away with the hardware are quality people that the country can be proud of.
Take, for example, an exuberant redhead who shattered the impression that snowboarders just don't care about the Olympics. Or a Park City skier who came out of nowhere to show us that dreams do come true. Or a philanthropic Harvard hopeful who gave up $40,000 of his winnings to help disadvantaged children around the world.
The U.S. snowboard team once said that the Olympics really didn't matter and many members felt that the games actually took away from their sport. But seeing the tears well up in Shaun White's eyes, you knew that this experience was easily the highlight of his career. His obvious enthusiasm bubbled right out of the television and into living rooms across America. He wasn't afraid to express how much it meant to have that ring of gold hanging around his neck.
American Alpine skier Ted Ligety entered the Olympics in the shadow of Bode Miller. Even if the press and the coaches didn't necessarily believe in Ligety, it didn't matter. Because he believed in himself. The expression of complete awe on Ligety's face as he looked up at the scoreboard said it all. Gold medals do happen for small-town guys who have a boatload of passion.
Joey Cheek proved that speedskating Olympians can do something more than just stroll down the red carpet with their 15 minutes of fame. He decided to make a difference in the lives of refugee children from Sudan, donating all the bonus money he received from the U.S. Olympic Committee for his gold and silver medals to a humanitarian organization called Right to Play.
His incredible donation will contribute to sport and play programs that work as psychological and social tools for development in one of the world's most disadvantaged countries.
These three athletes represent all that is good with the U.S. team. With role models like these, how can we say the games were a loss?
But still, I can hear the complaints all the way across the ocean: "Why didn't Bode Miller or Daron Rahlves win all the Alpine events? Why didn't Chad Hedrick match Eric Heiden's record of five gold medals? Why didn't Sasha Cohen stay up during her free skate? Why didn't Apolo Anton Ohno win more than one gold?"
They didn't because determined Frenchman and Austrians had the same goals as Bode and Rahlves. And because Hedrick's ambition was an extreme stretch. And because mistakes do happen when there is such intense pressure - even for a consistent, young girl like Cohen. And because Ohno's competition was training just as hard as he was.
But that's what the Olympics are about. Who wants to go to a Games if there is no one to stand toe-to-toe at the line or push competitors to train even harder?
Throughout the games, I heard several past medalists get the common "You want to make a comeback? These athletes need saving."
My response was always, "No, they don't need saving, they need support."
It frustrates me to no end when I hear people putting down the Olympic athletes for their poor performances. Most of these people have no idea what it feels like to have the weight of their country resting on their shoulders. They have no idea what it feels like to have TV cameras inches from their face. They have no idea what it feels like knowing that if something goes wrong, you have to wait another four years to try again.
And they have no idea what it feels like to have their whole future resting on just a few seconds.
It's more pressure than most people will feel in a lifetime. I'm glad that I will never have to feel pressure like that again. It was that pressure that would keep me up endless nights and occupy my every waking thought. For this reason, I am always more sympathetic to a botched performance than most people are.
I won't pretend that I'm not saddened by some of the results - aerials in particular. It's hard to see fellow athletes hang their heads in disappointment after their lifelong dreams have just come to an end. I know how hard they worked and the pain they went through to get there. I know the sacrifices they made to even stand at the starting line. I know how badly they wanted this.
But medal or no medal, people are not defined by titles and accomplishments. We are defined by our character and the company we keep. I would much rather someone call me a good person than an Olympic gold medalist.
Just imagine there were cameras and commentators analyzing every aspect of your job. Would you be proud of what you demonstrated to the public? If not, maybe it's time to start following the lessons of the Olympians by being an armchair student, rather than an armchair coach.