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What is expected of Olympians

Sep 27, 2014  - James Parrack

Who has made this statement, and about what? “ ..This value refers to giving one’s best, on the field of play or in life, without measuring oneself with others, but above all aiming at reaching one’s personal objectives with determination in the effort.  It is not only about winning, but mainly about participating, making progress against personal goals, striving to be and to do our best in our daily lives and benefiting from the combination of a strong body, will and mind.

This is the IOC’s definition of Excellence in one of their three identified Olympic values.  The other two are Friendship (overcoming our differences through friendship) and Respect (for oneself, others and rules of fair play).

The NFL is currently wrestling with a number of issues that surround the recent arrest and suspension of some of its players for domestic abuse.  At the same time, US national women’s soccer team goalkeeper, Hope Solo, was arrested in June for assault, but continues to play while awaiting a trial in November.  Speaking about Solo’s case, the USOC made a comment that came to the nub of the argument. "Abuse in all forms is unacceptable," said US Olympic Committee chief officer Scott Blackmun in an email to USA Today." The allegations involving Ms Solo are disturbing and are inconsistent with our expectations of Olympians.”

This is not an article on the state of the NFL, nor is it an article on the black, white and grey areas of domestic abuse or child discipline.  This is a personal view, as an Olympian, that speculates on what the USOC’s expectations of Olympians might be and moreover, are they fair?

 The subtext of Blackmun’s comment is that Olympic athletes are held to a higher standard than other elite sports people. I agree that Olympians should strive for excellence, for strength of character, for moral fibre, display to the world their talent and hard work and be respectful and friendly.  But so should everyone.  This should be taught and demonstrated by parents, teachers, coaches, business managers, government officals and religious and community leaders the world over.  Blackmun’s comment could easily read: “The allegations are inconsistent with our expectations of dentists,” said a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, for example.

 Why is it that Olympians have to be the ultimate role model?  Perhaps because so many other sports ‘stars’ show an ugly side, or because so many politicians, journalists, police officers and lawyers end up in a race to the bottom, that we find ourselves left clinging to people who come under the spotlight once every four years.  It is convenient for our Olympian ‘heroes’, that they shine so brightly in the world for a day or two, then disappear for so long, giving us little opportunity to see other sides of their character.

 Are Olympians really so special?  They are certainly very talented at many things, and have worked extraordinarily hard in pursuit of a dream they have held since childhood.  But so do many swimmers, who work just as hard but miss the Fina A cut by 0.01 sec and never make an Olympics.  Are they any less Olympian according to the IOC?  Similarly, do we not also see Olympians who are selfish and self-centred?  Do they not often think of winning at any cost?  In swimming, do we not still debate whether it is a team sport or an individual sport, and if the latter, at a stroke discount the effort and skills of any number of people who have helped engineer that success?

 When you watch Whiplash, and join the dots into the swimming world, you have to ask yourself whether one Olympic gold medal is worth the anger and dysfunction that comes with winning it.  But this is a film.  While it is certainly a cautionary tale in talent development,  we hope we can achieve great results without resorting to extreme measures; do so in the Olympian way.

 If our expectations of Olympians are that they live to a higher standard, should we look to Olympians for guidance?  Perhaps they have an instinctive access to the secrets of successful relationships, business careers, influencing public opinion and ....the ultimate goal: happiness?  That’s it!  Olympians are happier than everyone else!  They are self actualised human beings, who have worked out the meaning of life!

 We all need role models, but if we are holding Olympians to the higher standard demanded by the USOC, then aren’t we just asking to be deceived?  What do we think about Olympians who make poor business decisions?  Olympians who suffer depression? Who get divorced?  What about Olympians who argue with their families, forget important anniversaries or names of their friends’ children?  Indeed, are Olympians allowed to get fat after their career is over?   Are these consistent with our expectations of Olympians?

 The US women’s soccer federation is stuck where so many federations have been stuck before, including US Swimming.  They have an athlete who has demonstrated success through hard work, team leadership and inspirational ability.  Then she is in the headlines for the wrong reasons and the federation isn’t inclined to want to dismiss all that good stuff too hastily.  At a lower level, US Swimming had to walk a fine line when talking about the errors Michael Phelps made with a DUI and then ‘Bong-gate’.

 In the same way that athletes cannot measure their own self worth according to where they finish in their races, so the rest of the world cannot project character values according to the order in which athletes finish a race.  Sport does not build character, it reveals character, and this should be celebrated more than the outcomes of races.  And sometimes of course the media tries to do this, but it just doesn’t make for such a good headline.

 I found it interested that the triple jump world record holder and Sydney Olympic gold medallist Jonathan Edwards was often asked his view on subjects in which he clearly had no qualification to respond with authority.  I am interested in his view on his training, on competition, mental preparation, nutrition, the role of parents and family and friends, remaining calm under pressure, goal setting, coaching, sports science, etc. etc.  I didn’t particularly want his view on that day’s government.

 My friend Simon, who has no sporting, academic or business pedigree at all,  is more worthy of my time and friendship than many Olympic champions.  Why?  Because he is honest, reliable and has a finely honed sense of what is right and wrong.  He makes time for his family and his work. He cultivates those relationships. He is selfless with his time and attention.  He contributes more to the world than he takes from it.  I enjoy listening to Simon’s advice to me on my struggles with family life, my professional life and how to navigate the problems life throws at us more than a colleague from the Olympics.  By every one of the IOC’s values, Simon is more an Olympian than some Olympians I know.

 The reason Olympians are considered different is because they are rare.  The reason they are held up as shining beacons of all that is good in sport is because they are seen briefly.  The scarcity of this Olympian resource inflates its value.  Rare is special.  Rare is valuable.  Rare has qualities the rest of us don’t.  And this rarity will always attract an unfair belief in its abilities.

 At the end of the day, the Olympics holds our attention and still, just about, stands for something that is good about human endeavour.  In a dangerous and complex world, we want to believe that there are people out there who are fundamentally good, have a strong an unwavering moral compass, and who achieve great things though talent and hard work.  Too often they are found in works of fiction, so when some of them are found in the real world, and some in the Olympic arena, we rightly hold them high and pretend we can be like them.  And sometimes, just sometimes, we can.

Extract from an IOC report in 2013: Olympism and the Olympic Movement



The IOC has identified the following three Olympic values:


In the Olympic ideal, this value refers to giving one’s best,

on the field of play or in life, without measuring oneself with others, but above

all aiming at reaching one’s personal objectives with determination in the effort.

It is not only about winning, but mainly about participating, making progress against

personal goals, striving to be and to do our best in our daily lives and benefiting

from the combination of a strong body, will and mind.


Men and women are at the centre of the Olympic Movement’s

focus encouraging the links and mutual understanding between people. This value

broadly refers to building a peaceful and better world through solidarity, team spirit,

joy and optimism in sport.

The Olympic Games inspire humanity to overcome political, economic, gender,

racial or religious differences and forge friendships in spite of those differences.

The athletes express this value by forming life-long bonds with their team-mates,

as well as their opponents.


In the Olympic ideal, this value represents the ethical principle

that should inspire all who participate in the Olympic programmes. It includes

respect for oneself and one’s body, respect for one another, for rules and for

the environment. It thus refers to the fair play that each athlete has to display

in sport, as well as avoiding doping