I’m not usually a sports junkie.
But being stuck on the couch with the flu for the past week, I’m pretty sure I broke world records with my vast quantities of Olympics viewing (OK, maybe just a few personal bests).
And it got me thinking: about our culture’s obsession with winning, its narrow take on success, and how its expectations affect people in the public eye.
Trying To Force A Fairytale
One Olympic moment that stayed with me for days was when Aussie long jumper Fabrice Lapierre, the guy who jumps with his gold chain in his mouth (above), failed to achieve his podium goal. One of the world’s best, Fabrice may well have won a medal if his toes hadn’t crossed the foul line. By a margin of millimetres, he was disqualified and left the event “bitterly disappointed”.
What really irked me was the TV interview conducted shortly after. It was painful. Fabrice struggled to give the answers the trackside interviewer Pat Welsh wanted, and in fact looked as though he wanted the ground to swallow up either himself—or Welsh.
Yet Welsh didn’t take the hint.
Rather than treating Fabrice as a man who just needed time to himself in that moment he, under editorial direction no doubt, forged ahead with his questions about “what went wrong”, not wanting to waste the golden opportunity for a great ‘story’.
Prior to the Games, Channel 7 had built Fabrice up into a potential hero with one of their movie-trailer style athlete profiles, so they were likely compelled to try and deliver on their build-up.
I found myself praying for the guy for days afterwards.
Another moment that got me ranting at the TV screen was when the Hockeyroos’ Georgie Parker apologised to the nation for her team’s quarter-final loss. She even tweeted “Sorry, Australia”.
While I respect her competitive desire for the team to perform at their best, at the same time I’m sad that Georgie feels her team is expected to win, and that there’s a need to apologise to the couch critics back home.
Why Does Losing Have to be ‘Humiliating’?
The Hockeyroos’ male hockey counterparts, the Kookaburras, were also “humiliated” in defeat according to the Sydney Morning Herald. OK sure, they were top ranked, and yes, they were defeated 4-0.
But ‘humiliate’ means to make someone feel ashamed. Do journalists really want to heap shame upon the heroes they have created? And if not, then why is losing a game, considered a humiliation? Why must ‘humiliated’ be part of our sports reporting vocabulary?
The other big story of dashed dreams was, of course, that of swimmer Cate Campbell. Cate was expected to win much gold, but buckled under Games pressure during the highly-anticipated 50 metres and 100 metres freestyle and, along with her world-champion sister Bronte, missed out on those medals.
Why must ‘humiliated’ be part of our sports reporting vocabulary?
Cate seemed to be feeling the weight of public expectation – and perhaps displayed a touch of shame and over-catastrophising – when she famously labelled her results “possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history”.
Why did Cate feel the need to declare she would stand up and “take responsibility for her actions”? It’s not as if she was caught for doping. Are the Australian public really waiting to put her through the wringer for simply not winning gold?
Is It Too Much Pressure?
I can’t help thinking that our over-glorification of winning largely creates the pressure-cooker environment in which athletes buckle—and then dissolve in tears of self-condemnation and apology afterwards. And that we all participate when we yell picky, judgmental comments at our TV screens, whether it’s every four years during the Olympics, or every weekend watching the footy.
Australia’s Olympic Chef De Mission Kitty Chiller displayed the heart of this culture when she declared the Aussie team fell “well short” of medal targets. And the media emphasises it, with headlines like What went wrong for Australia at the Rio Olympics?
Yes, the nation pours a fortune into training our athletes, and the ethics of that is another debate altogether. But athletes are still humans, and demanding a return on investment is callous, if not damaging.
We Need A Different Approach Says Sports Psychologist
Thank goodness for leaders like Fiona de Jong, CEO of the Australian Olympic Committee, who told Hope 103.2’s Sam Robinson that it’s not all about winning.
“I think the important thing to remember is not to measure it just on medals,” she said. “There’s so many people who’ve done personal bests here. And they’re to really be celebrated. To come to an Olympic Games and do a personal best performance is really quite difficult. And we really need to celebrate those athletes.”
And thank goodness for writers like ABC sports editor David Mark who has called for a debate over our nation’s ‘obsession with gold’.
“What exactly is the value of a gold medal — how do they contribute to our nation? And why do we put so much value on coming first?” he writes. “A gold medal is a glittering prize, but if it’s the be-all and end-all then we’ve missed the point of playing in the first place.”
Gold medal expectations are ridiculous…Some coaches think it’s motivating. It’s the opposite. ~ George Shirling
And thank heavens for thinkers like former sports psychologist George Shirling, who told news.com.au that medal forecasts are damaging, and has called for an end to the glory-predictions.
“Gold medal expectations are ridiculous,” he told News. “They are set up by the coaches, the organisations, the suited brigade, as I call them, because all of this is part of the lobbying and the funding and kowtowing to the Olympic committee. Some coaches think it’s motivating. It’s the opposite — I believe it’s demotivating.
“Few athletes don’t react negatively under the weight of expectation.”
Elite athletes will always put immense pressure on themselves anyway, regardless of the media’s values.
But without the medal predictions and the media-corporate pressure, maybe TV interviewers would be more sensitive with athletes immediately after a so-called fail. Perhaps the Hockeyroos wouldn’t have felt they had to apologise to Australia. And maybe Cate Campbell wouldn’t conclude that her non-gold moment in the 50 metres was the biggest Olympic fail of all time.
One should never apologise for trying.
A New Take On Failure
American entrepreneur and billionaire Sara Blakely, someone our culture would herald as a “success”, has a unique take on failure.
She told Business Insider that when she was a child, her father would ask herself and her brother to share what they’d failed at—and that “he’d actually be disappointed if I didn’t have something that I’d failed at that week.”
“I can remember saying ‘Dad! Dad! I tried out for this and I was horrible!’”, Blakely says. “And he would actually high five me and say ‘Congratulations, way to go.’” He also encouraged her, after any disappointment or embarrassment, to write down the ‘hidden gifts’ in the experience.
“What it did was just reframe my definition of failure. Failure, for me, became ‘not trying’, [rather than] the outcome,” she said.
Perhaps it’s time our culture reframed failure, too—as well as success.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped treating our sportspeople less as commodities or blue-chip investments, and more as humans. Perhaps then they would feel more freedom to actually do their best, knowing their nation was truly on their side—no matter what.