After the Sochi Winter Olympics, Alana Christensen reflects on powerful athletes she has encountered and writes about what is most important in our global sporting culture: spirit.
“The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle”. Both eloquent and full of wisdom, this is the message the Olympic Motto attempts to instil in Olympians and the public. Yet looking back on Australia’s London 2012 Olympic campaign, the words disappointing, underwhelming and even failure come to mind. These aren’t the words I myself believe, but rather those spoken by the media, commentators and patriots, words spoken by Australians.
Australia won 35 medals at the 2012 Olympics. Out of 204 countries that competed, Australia finished tenth. The very fact that coming tenth in the world brands our Olympic journey underwhelming is ridiculous. The fact that the ten medals we won in swimming are overshadowed by the fact that James Magnussen swam a one hundredth of a second too slow, that he won silver instead of gold, is not in the spirit of the Olympics. The fact that coming second, or even third, in the world is not good enough for us is not in the spirit of the Olympics. The very fact that Australian Olympic Committee president AJohn Coates admitted that our London campaign was disappointing. He went on to assure the media, and public, that he remained committed to ensuring Australia did “well” in the Rio 2016 Olympics, implying tenth in the world is not good enough. This is not in the spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes all around the world train endlessly, just in the hope of attending the Olympics. Athletes delicately balance the realities of life, full time work and families, with their passion for sport, athletes such as Maureen Tuimalealiifano. Maureen is a 43 year old bank manager, and mother of two. Whilst this alone is an immense undertaking, she is also an Olympic archer for Samoa. Maureen discovered archery just seven months before the Olympics. In the months leading up to London, Maureen completed 6 hours of training a day, on top of the expectation of her home life. Although she dreamed of winning gold at the Olympics, it was never a necessity or an expected destination, rather an exciting possibility. For Maureen being one of the top 64 competitors in the world and representing her beloved Samoa at the Olympics was enough. In an interview with World Archery TV in the months prior to the Olympics, Maureen called representing Samoa “a privilege”. For Maureen, a naturally reserved and modest competitor, reaching the Olympics was the main goal. Whilst gold was the ultimate dream, she admitted “it’s a lot of effort and commitment, just to be at this stage”.
Much like Maureen, Ric Blas Jr is a refreshing change from the highly competitive mindset of the Australian public. A judoka from Guam, Ric has been training since he was just five years old, with the dream of winning at the Olympics. At the London Olympics, after 20 years of training, Ric achieved his dream. Whilst his win didn’t earn him a gold medal and although the podium still eludes him, Ric’s first round win against Facinet Keita of Guinea was the first Olympic win in Guam’s history. Although he lost his second round, when I spoke to Ric in the hours following the end of his Olympic journey, he didn’t speak of disappointment or sadness, but joy. Ric was ecstatic to have made history for his country, to have made those back home proud. “There was just hundreds of people saying they were going to watch me from home, so I had a huge, huge home crowd.”
“I guess when I won all that was going through my head was everyone’s face I could have thought about that was watching”, he said beaming. “I’ve always wanted to make Guam proud and making history is doing that.”
“[The] message for the people back home would be none of this would be worth it if it weren’t for them. I just want to make sure they know that it’s because of them I’m doing this”.
There is something incredibly infectious and inspiring about not only Maureen and Ric’s journey to the Olympics, but also the attitude with which the embrace it. Australia’s athletes are immensely talented and we have the great fortune of being able to develop and support them from a young age. Yet it seems the heavy expectations we put on them, our greedy desire for medals and wins takes their toll. Whilst a competitive spirit is healthy, we must put into perspective the inspiring effort each and every athlete, Australian or otherwise, puts into getting to the Olympics, let alone winning gold. With the Commonwealth Games fast approaching and the Olympics in 2016, perhaps we can take a leaf out of our Pacific counterparts and celebrate our athletes for their talent, commitment and passion, rather than the number of medals hanging around their neck.