I’m not much into sports, nor do I normally watch major sporting events. I’m aware of the Olympics, but they do not normally draw me. For some reason this year, I’ve found myself watching a lot of the events in Greece. Perhaps it was the opening ceremonies that drew me in. They were an impressive show, and I found the montage of wall frescoes come to life absolutely stunning. My daughters have participated in opening ceremonies, and I know the incredible amount of work that goes into presenting such a visual spectacle. The precision moves, the colours, the presentation, and the movements of each actor and dancer on the floats combined to create an incredible living picture that I found myself wanting to watch again and again.
The opening ceremonies had me hooked, but there was more. Perhaps it is the psychology of the games that is drawing me this year. The Master of Counselling program may be offering sport psychology as a discipline in upcoming years, and during my summer school I got to know a fellow classmate who works as a sports psychologist. She made me stop and think about the tremendous psychological pressure that the athletes undergo, and how important it is to have the right kind of mental and emotional support.
Such performance pressure is not new to me, of course. My daughters have performed in countless dance competitions, and I became very familiar with the world of judging, performance anxiety, pressure, stage mothers, coaches, and so on. I know the camaraderie that can grow between performers, and the nastiness that can erupt among competitors. I understand how it feels to have unfair or inconsistent judging result in a deserving performer losing out on an earned accolade. I saw the elation of winning and the disappointment of not giving one’s best performance. I was familiar with the hours of rehearsal, sacrifice and dedication that go into those few minutes of a never-to-be-repeated flawless performance.
While similar, there are many ways in which sport competitions are very different from dance. There is a stronger team element with sports, and a powerful link to one’s national identity. Sports appeal to a much wider group of people, encompassing the attention of a huge segment of the world’s population. Sports also carry a much greater risk of injury. And of course there is a scope of competition that goes national, international, and to the Olympics.
The Olympics are not just special because they only come around once every four years, or because of the historical significance. The Olympics combine sports and nationalism into a ceremonial performance that is almost religious in nature, creating a powerful experience that draws the whole world together.
Athletes train and work for the Olympic moment. In some countries this begins very early, and athletes are hand-picked and trained from childhood to grow into an Olympic champion. In other countries, such as Canada, there is less of a focus on life-long athleticism. In fact, many Canadian athletes receive minimal government support, and there were countless stories of athletes who were working as waiters, or mortgaging their property, in order to be able to finance their attendance in Greece.
I was saddened and outraged by the Canadian Olympic official’s decision to raise the bar for these Olympics, effectively eliminating participation from any athletes who had not achieved the highest preliminary marks. It reminded me of the sometimes unjust and exclusionary tactics used by universities to keep post secondary education accessible to only the elite, top academic performers. I read of individual athletes who had worked so hard for the past four years, only to be disappointed by this official decision.
It seemed bizarre to me that Canada sent more coaches and officials to this year’s Olympics than athletes. I could not help but wonder how much of the sense of sport and camaraderie was lost among Canadian athletes. Certainly every country wants to bring home medals, but to restrict participation to only those who are thought to be the best medal chances cheapens and demeans the whole process, turning the Olympics into an elite contest rather than a celebration of human athletic achievement by Canadians.
The controversy over this decision no doubt had repercussions on the psychological state of those athletes who were chosen to represent Canada. The pressure of the expectation that you are the best out of a select group, the disappointment of fellow athletes left back home, and the focus on getting a medal seems to have taken its toll. So far Canada has not done well at all when it comes to winning.
The same type of psychological turnaround seems to have occurred with the U.S.’s basketball “dream team” – another select group of athletes hand-picked for their ability to win the gold. Instead of performing as expected, they have instead been roundly defeated by teams they may have scorned as underdogs. Other athletes have come seemingly out of nowhere to take a gold.
We all wait for that moment when a Canadian wins the gold. To hear our national anthem played, to see our flag slowly raised as the winning athlete stands on the podium, holding back tears. I look into their faces at that moment, wondering what it must feel like to have won this incredible accolade on behalf of your country, to have millions of people watching you, to feel their pride, to know what a wonderful accomplishment you have just achieved.
Like many people, I find myself drawn by the so-called “Olympic moments,” those unusual mini-events that stand out from all the rest. Sometimes it is an exceptional performance, but for me, it’s more often the human elements that I find fascinating. The athletes that try and fail, or fall and picks themselves up to bravely keep going on. I found myself watching the women’s marathon, for example. I saw one of the British athletes drop out, overcome by exhaustion, heat, or some other combination of stressors. This was followed by a U.S. athlete who, in a sudden surge of last minute energy, caught up with and passed the third place runner, leaving her in the “dust” of the track. That same athlete then entered the stadium and finished the rest of the race with hysterical tears rolling down her face. I could not contain the tears filling my own eyes as I watched her. Canada did not have an entry in the women’s marathon because none of them could meet the new minimum standards – this U.S. runner would not have qualified under Canada’s new rules, yet she managed to secure a bronze for her country!
Or the unforgettable moment during men’s gymnastic high bars when the Russian gymnast gave an exceptional performance, only to have the judges give him a less than exceptional score. The audience screamed and booed for almost ten minutes, finally triggering a re-score. The audience reaction forced the American gymnast to wait at the sidelines, unable to continue. To add to the irony the American himself had been the subject of controversy earlier when another judging decision was questioned. I watched his face as he impatiently waited for the audience to subside. Finally the Russian gymnast had to step forward, bowing and thanking the audience for their support, but pleading with his body language for them to settle down and allow the competition to continue.
The whole incident took its toll psychologically on the other competitors. Although the American started his routine amid the boos, he was able to still give a relatively flawless performance to earn silver (although this irritated the crowd even further). The same was true of the Italian gymnast who won the gold. Two other gymnasts, obviously still stunned from the judging “error” and the audience reaction, made fatal mistakes in their routines.
There were other moments. Watching the expressions on the faces of the beach volleyball team from Canada as they beat the “unbeatable” Americans. Or the expression of joy on a Canadian diver’s face as she executed several excellent dives to finish with a respectable placing she had not expected – even though it was not first place. Athletes from the Ukraine celebrating a gold medal won by a team member – a bittersweet victory as they are mourning the loss of several of their team in a vehicle accident. The staging of the shot put in Olympia, the original home of the games, provided a never-to-be repeated historical moment.
I also found the opening march of the athletes quite incredible for one thing in particular. Every second athlete was carrying a video camera and/or a cell phone. They were holding these up, filming the whole event as they walked the stadium, or talking (presumably) to loved ones on the phone. It was an incredible way to include the world into the event through technology.
I watched the women’s gymnastics events, these tiny, sweet-faced young girls who have one chance to become the world’s new sweetheart, an Olga Korbut or Nadia Comaneci. They run and leap, flip and somersault, small bodies lighter than air. Four years from now at the next Olympics, many of them will be too old for the sport, or will have gained one pound too many to be able to execute the incredible physical gymnastic feats with the same litheness, power, and energy.
Then there are the runners who are seeking to beat previous records to become the “world’s fastest man.” I wonder – where will it end? These athletes are able to do things that they alone in the world are capable of accomplishing, breaking records and achieving the unimaginable. Mind-boggling, really.
There are some Olympic puzzles. For example, how some athletes switch countries, performing for one country one year, then changing residence and allegiance the next. Or why athletes continue to think they can get away with using performance-enhancing illegal drugs, causing doping scandals that taint the whole event. Too, product placement continues to permeate every aspect of our lives, and I couldn’t help but smile to hear a marathon runner give credit to her “Nike” cooling sport vest for helping her win the race. I also find it almost humorous to listen to the many commentators. Some of them are excellent, knowledgeable and erudite in their description of what is occurring. Others are full of themselves, doing their best to impress viewers with their ability to interpret Olympic events in great detail while providing interesting little tidbits about the athletes themselves.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to actually be there, to be one of those athletes. Although I’m not into sports or particularly interested in the outcome of the Olympics overall, I cannot help but be impressed with the incredible physical accomplishments of the participants and the fever that accompanies the whole event. The Olympics provide a highly educational psychological experience, and it is endlessly fascinating to watch the human show. I cannot help but wonder where I’ll be in 2010 when the Olympics are held in Vancouver!
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.