I have been interested over the previous week to see the media reaction to Australia’s apparent ‘disappointing’ performances thus far at the Olympics. From the 4x100m relay in the swimming, the Opals loss to France in the basketball and through swimmer Emily Seebohm’s tears that she hoped her silver medal hadn’t ‘disappointed’ the country.
The challenge and expectations placed upon our Olympic athletes are enormous. The reality is that for the approximately 10,500 athletes competing in London there are a total of 906 medals on offer. The figures determining any individual’s likelihood of success are staggering. With approximately 6.675 billion people in the world, the odds of being an Olympic athlete are 1:636,000 and the chances of gaining an Olympic gold is 1:22,000,000.
Our Olympic athletes devote years of their lives, often on meager wages (or the generosity of their families) to live the olympic dream. Whilst we encourage our athletes to live ‘balanced lives’, the reality is that 4+ hours of daily training + rehabilitation commitments such as physiotherapy, massage, doctors, psychologists, dietitians + meetings with coaches and commitments with sponsors leaves very little room for work, family and relaxation. The notion of the elite athlete having a balanced life is for most a myth.
Australians love their sport. Of this, there is no doubt. Our athletes are lauded as heroes in ways that our scientists, academics, and cultural elite can only dream. In elevating our athletes to such a high pedestal, the fall when it comes can be hard.
Any wonder then that within seconds of finishing their Olympic event, attaining a result that does not meet their expectations and with cameras and most of the world watching, that some of our athletes react in ways that perhaps even they can’t anticipate?
Athletes are encouraged from very early days to focus not on the result but rather their performance in relation to their own standard (their personal best). We have little to no control over the behaviour of our competitors, however when it comes to our personal effort we can very much control our destiny. We should remember that for some the disappointment experienced with a lower than expected medal or placing, may be as much about not attaining their PB.
To experience disappointment often elicits a grief response. Grief is tough enough when experienced in the privacy of our own homes, let alone in the public pressure-cooker that is the Olympic stage. When a young 20-something has spent more than half their life training for a single opportunity, why should we be surprised when they become human on our screens and react with emotion? Emotions are an integral part of what differentiates us from other species and our experiences (good and bad) provide our opportunity for learning and growth.
The journey to the Olympics is a long road with many potential highs and lows. The odds of getting there are small and all that do (regardless of their performance outcome) are heroes for their courage and tenacity.