As anyone who was in Whistler in February 2010 can tell you, the Olympics are kind of a big deal, the Super Bowl of everything that isn’t football. It was a special time, and a good exercise in building national pride.
But while we won the hockey gold and Alexandre Bilodeau broke our home Olympic gold medal curse — and then some — it wasn’t all fun and celebrations. Some athletes who worked their entire lives for a chance to compete for a medal at home had bad luck on the day of the event, or were injured in the months before the Games.
As a member of the media covering those games, I got to see what it was like for the athletes that fall short. I had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other reporters — most of whom only care about the sports every four years when they’re forced to cover it — who would ask these dedicated athletes the most brutal questions you can imagine.
In their limited view and understanding, not winning was the same as losing, and losing was no better than choking.
They’d ask some variation of “Why didn’t you win?” — obviously grumpy that they came all that way and stood out in the cold for a story that would likely get buried — “Tell me how disappointed you are right now.”
In reality, the Olympics are just one event out of hundreds for athletes in sports that are more about overall consistency than winning gold on any particular day, yet the somehow the Olympics end up being the thing that define these athletes in the public eye. And that’s a shame.
Take alpine skiing, for example. The World Cup is a circuit event that travels the globe with a dozen events on the calendar for every discipline, and athletes can improve their start numbers, and chance of winning, with good, consistent performances every week. Winning gold at one event is good, but winning two gold is five times better — and the best thing of all is the chance to win the overall World Cup title at the end of the year for being the most consistent, and therefore all-around best, athlete in your category over the course of a season that runs almost five months.
The athletes understand that anybody can win on any given day, but a true champion is the athlete who is always in a position to win a podium. Think Tour de France — stage wins are great, but the main prize is always the overall title. You don’t even have to win a single stage to get it, you just have to be among the best riders on every day of the event.
Just something to consider as the ramp-up to the 2014 Games kicks into high gear and pundits starting weighing on Canada’s medal chances and our medal hopefuls. I’ve met a lot of the athletes that are hoping to stand on top of the podium in Sochi, and they are great people deserving of your support whatever happens on the day of the event.
Win or lose is the wrong way to view most sports at the Games. Think of them as a final exam — it’s great to do well in the test, but it’s your performance over the whole year that counts. A bad result at the Olympics doesn’t reflect on the athletes, or on Canada.