As the Olympic Games wear on, so too does the media’s ever present medal count. U.S. Ski & Snowboard, among other national governing bodies of sports, defines athletic success by the number of medals won in each Olympics. Medals won are the North Star, the end goal that drives the all-important funding decisions that will determine team size and composition, sport selection and coaching positions. The purpose of NGB’s, it seems, is to funnel resources so they boost medal count most efficiently. Perhaps now is a good time to step back and reconsider this measure of success.
The Russian doping revelations and the horrific developments in US gymnastics are a clear call for reflection, for an honest look at the real costs of pursuing the medal imperative. They lay bare the ways athletes—with tacit approval and even encouragement from their most trusted supporters—can sacrifice their long term physical and mental health in the almighty pursuit of medals.
These scandals notwithstanding, even in the context of healthy athlete development, using medals as a sole measure of success has never sat well with me. Yes, medals are a motivating and tangible reward for hard work, and keeping score keeps us all engaged. Something about their import, however, feels hollow and contradictory to the whole point of the Olympics. On one side the Olympics are, as one commentator put it, “an amalgamation of our stereotypes of amateurism,” including the ideals of character, heroism and the pure love of sport. And yet, it is the amassing of medals that drives the train of Olympic development.
The Olympic ideal itself makes no mention of medals. It is, in fact, quite the contrary. When the Games were reimagined and revived by Pierre de Coubertin it was “to promote understanding across cultures via athletic competition and thereby lessen the dangers of war.” I’ll admit I was not psyched about the Olympics being in Asia for three “quads” (that’s Olympic budgeting shorthand), because it smacks of the commercialism and graft that is integral to Olympic selection process. As the scenario has played out so far though, with at least the pretense of unity and cooperation between North and South Korea, the venue seems as apt as any for recapturing the original Olympic mission.
The three Olympic values are Friendship, Respect and Excellence. Excellence could be interpreted as medals were it not explicitly defined as the quality of the effort. As Coubertin asserted, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!” Even the Olympic motto—Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger)— had a post script by Coubertin “These three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.”
The whole point of the Olympic movement is spelled out in a lengthy charter, the highpoints of which are:
The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. Sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
What really drives performance?
You get the gist. It’s not about the medals. And yet, medals are used as the barometer for the worthiness of the pursuit. While trying to articulate my feelings about the hypocrisies of Olympic ideals and Olympic realities, I heard an interview with Anson Dorrance, legendary soccer coach at University of North Carolina. When he said, “Character drives performance,” something clicked, and I listened more closely. He went on:
“The most critical thing for your development is the development of your character. What drives winning is your character development. If all of us can participate in promoting a culture where the character evolution is the most important piece in a young athlete’s evolution I think we’re doing things in the right way.”
He went on to point out the successful professional sports teams who see winning as a consequence of creating a team with strong character at their core. Case in point are the New Zealand All Blacks the most successful sports franchise in history. According to their mental skills coach, “In our cornerstone philosophies, the team towers above the individual. You will never succeed on your own but you will be successful as an individual if the team functions well.”
The motto of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, “Best in the World,” lends itself to very broad interpretation. Athletically, however, that has strictly been defined as winning the most medals. Ironically, the perennial leader in Olympic snowsport medals, Norway, is perhaps most conspicuous amongst NGB’s in their deliberate effort to cultivate team culture above individual success. Henrik Kristofferson notwithstanding, they eschew the star system and stress team strength through unity. This, traditionally, has borne out the highest medal count, despite the fact that Norway has 1.2 million snowsports participants compared to the 24 million in the U.S..* This brings me back to my essential disconnect. Medals may be a worthy goal but Olympic medals only have real value if they are the consequence of maintaining the actual Olympic ideals.
The bright light of the U.S. Ski Team is the women’s Nordic team, which, despite minimal funding, has transformed from obscurity to serious medal contender in multiple events from multiple athletes. Five athletes have scored ten World Cup podiums this season. They did not get there by curating individual stars. Yes, each athlete is supremely motivated and has her own grit. But to be truly World Class as a nation, you need more than stars: you need a team. Along with the Norwegians, their celebration of team has been a popular story leading up to the Olympics. In one interview I heard a U.S. Nordic athlete explain, “The team is our total secret weapon.” She went on to say how they have taken an individual sport and harnessed the power of team. Instead of targeting resources on a few individuals and hoping for success, it makes more sense—and seems more Olympic spirited—to invest in a positive team environment that cultivates success.
Another thing Dorrance mentions is his tradition of giving roses to seniors before every NCAA game to reflect their careers. The roses, which fade and die in a few days, serve as a reminder that athletic success is ephemeral. The glow and glory of winning lasts about as long as cut roses in a vase of water. The legacy of the pursuit then is the effort and discipline that went in to the achievements. The practice of celebrating this passage within the team environment, as part of a renewal rather than an endpoint, helps every athlete on the team feel part of a healthy, ongoing process. When viewing sport through that broader lens, I can’t help but think of all the athletes, parents and coaches who might now happily exchange Olympic medals for the lifelong benefits of Olympic ideals.
*From SIA participation study that estimates the US has 11.9M skiers, 7.6M snowboarders, and 5.1M XC skiers in the US, and Laurent Vanet’s “2017 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism” that tracks snowsports participants by country.