Vancouver Journal #9: To walk or not to walk?

Vancouver Journal #9: Opening Ceremonies – to walk or not to walk? Monday, February 15, 2010

Years, even decades of training go into an Olympic bid, and most of the millions that attempt this feat fail to join the few thousand that do. Morning, afternoon and evening they suffer, sweating and straining in pursuit of a distant dream – a few remembered snapshots from childhood serving as the glowing grail for this quest.

For most, those images can be distilled down to two mental pictures that have kept them motivated all these years. First and foremost is the vision of climbing the podium, bending down to receive an Olympic medal to the roar of the crown and the tears of joy and relief from friends and family.

There is another dream though, one that is far more realistic for the thousands of Olympians here chasing dozens of medals, and that dream is to march in the opening ceremonies and witness the pageantry surrounding the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

But this dream is fading: more and more athletes are skipping the opening ceremonies and the parade of nations has become a gentrified walk of coaches and staff.

Why? You might ask.

In pursuit of the primary dream, everything becomes secondary – the vision of that ephemeral medal becomes ever more singular and the lesser, more realistic dreams fall away. To walk in opening ceremonies is to be on your feet for 2 – 3 hours – certainly not on anyone’s list of “best preparation” techniques for an athletic competion. Many simply choose not to attend – which is certainly their right.

However, some are just banned from participating by coaches and staff. At least one team I’m aware of was banned by their NGB (national governing body) to walk in the opening ceremonies – probably dozens.

Then there is the middle ground, some are “guilted” out of going. For the U.S. Short Track team, they were told it would be “selfish” to walk.

Wait, you say, that’s terrible!

Well, perhaps it is not so simple. As a skater in the relay, three other people who have dedicated their life to this sport are relying on YOU to put in the performance of a lifetime – just to make it to the medal round. If a skater were to walk in the opening ceremony and fail to pull his or her weight during the race – and the team were to lose as a result, then yes, perhaps that would be selfish.

Further, there is the mental aspect – everyone is always trying to find that edge, a refrain in the brain saying “I’ll bet the Koreans are not walking,” starts to further frame the issue.

I’m very happy to have the memories of walking in the Lillehammer opening ceremonies and witnessing the spectacle of a ski jumper flying 100 meters through the air while carrying a flaming torch in his grasp…

But, I have to admit I would trade that memory in a second for the silver medal those games also provided.

Is there a solution to this quandary? One solution would be to require every competing athlete to walk in the opening ceremonies in order to even the playing field. This seems unlikely, but the second solution is potentially more realistic – what if they planned the opening ceremonies two days before the first event?

I’m reminded that the Olympic motto is "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”

Still, has something gone missing?

Vancouver Journal #2: The World’s Biggest Party

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Last week I received my NBC credentials in the mail. More than airplane tickets, the hotel room, the food at the commissary, the salary or per diem, these two laminated plastic cards are the primary perk for being a part of the NBC Olympic team. With these two cards I will be able to enter virtually any event at the Olympics and get down to the “mixed zone” where only athletes and press are allowed. Sadly opening ceremonies are the one even where even these credentials won’t work. .

The Olympics, for most, are a television event. People from around the world tune in to watch their favorite sport and watch the unfolding drama. Part of the delight of watching is the grand backdrop, the once-in-four-years stories of success, and those “agony of defeat” episodes as well.
.
A series of traditions help to create the spectacle: the running of the torch, the fanfare and fireworks of the opening ceremonies, the parade of nations and, finally, the lighting of the torch. (See pictures attached from the Torino Olympics opening ceremonies.)

But being there is different. The Olympics are the single biggest party in the world. For 17 days, a few million people, all in a good mood, all with a love of sport, walk around in a perpetual state of delight – wide eyes taking in the spectacle of a city transformed – many with family or friends, or the friend of a friend taking part in the events. I would expect that downtown Vancouver will be much like Torino was four years ago – throngs of people in hats and scarves pouring in and out of cafes and restaurants, bars and shops, camera crews and temporary broadcast pods, and the occasional brightly colored warmup suit of an athlete strolling casually along with everyone else.

 Most people are nervous to speak to the athletes, but for the most part, these fears are unwarranted. 99.99% of these athletes have toiled in anonymity for years, if not decades. To be recognized by strangers for their investment with few interested questions and a request for a snapshot can make an athlete’s day – and indeed in a half hour stroll you will likely see a dozen or more of these spontaneous group shots taking place, brightly suited athletes surrounded by a huddle of smiling strangers blocking pedestrian traffic to complete the picture. The atmosphere is even more enchanting in the evening. Even as the temperatures drop, a new level of interpersonal warmth is created.

In Torino, incredibly colorful and complex lighting displays arched over the streets downtown lighting the vapors of breath and laughter in the cold winter air. The question, “where are you from,” usually with an accent is more than a gesture of politeness – it is an invitation to a true conversation, one that often turns into an invitation – to a reception, an event, or to a party.  Some may consider the Olympics a frivolous enterprise – these are “games” after all. World hunger isn’t being solved, no mines or nuclear warheads are being deactivated, and despite efforts to become more “green” there is likely a negative net contribution to global warming. That said, consider world ills – world “weaknesses” as it were. Perhaps as a society, as a world culture, we are guilty of much of the same negative bias and focus as we are as teams and individuals. We spend our time and energies on fixing what is wrong rather than celebrating and adding to what is right.

The Olympics are ultimately a celebration of strengths – a study in what is right vs. a focus on what is wrong. The world needs its cancer seminars, and violence prevention workshops, but in the end perhaps what it needs most is a positive focus for its energies. Perhaps the world needs more of these games, a bigger focus on what is right in the world. For this we thank the Greeks of nearly 3000 years ago who fed the world this amazing enterprise where the celebration of excellence triumphs again and again. 

 

Preview of Vancouver #3: Meet the athletes – short track and long track team members