Agony and ecstasy at the Olympics

“The fact that the Olympics honours only the first three finishers with medals does not detract from the performance of the rest,” writes the author. Photo: Alex Lomas
Published August 13, 2012

Canada has had more than its fair share of disappointment at the London 2012 Summer Olympics. In the current culture of winner-take-all competition, athletes are classed as either winners or losers. Top nations bask in their reflected glory while the rest huddle in their shadow, hiding their shame and envying their success

This is not the way the Olympics was intended to be. The challenge to excel and perform at the peak of their potential is common to all the athletes. To achieve that goal is all that really matters and knowing that they have given their utmost reward enough in itself. Competing with others is a team exercise that provokes each athlete to his or her greatest effort.

Athletes come together at the Olympics because they are the best in the world. Each one knows the time and effort required to get to this level of performance. Competing with one another then becomes an opportunity to demonstrate what each is capable of achieving at the top of their form.

The fact that the Olympics honours only the first three finishers with medals does not detract from the performance of the rest. No one knows the quality of the opposition better than the medalists themselves, who can afford to be magnanimous in victory.

A fine example of this Olympic spirit occurred in the final of this year’s kayak race.  Adam van Koeverden, Canadian, was up against the Norwegian, Eirik Veras Larsen, in their race for gold.  Adam led the field for most of the 1,000 metres course, but was overtaken at the end.

In his Globe and Mail report, Eric Reguly writes: “True to his nature, the Canadian was gracious in defeat-if you can call silver a defeat. ‘He’s a classy guy and I respect him so much and trust him implicitly….If I had to lose to somebody, Eirik’s an okay guy to lose to.’ “

Would that more medalists could emulate that example! Losers too!

The Bible has something pertinent to say about winning and losing.  Preferment in God’s eyes turns worldly standards on their heads:


The first shall be last, and the last first.

            The meek (not the mighty) shall inherit the earth.


And when two of the disciples were asking Jesus to give them gold and silver medals on the podium in his coming kingdom, he told them:


That’s not mine to give, but shall be given to those who deserve it.

            Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.

            And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.


If more of that spirit could infuse the Olympics, while it would not lessen the agony and ecstasy, it would certainly encourage a more equitable empathy: learning to rejoice with those that rejoice, and weep with those that weep.


William Blake got it right when he wrote:


Man is made for joy and woe,

            And when this we rightly know,

            Through the world we safely go.


Canon Peter Gratton is a retired priest in the diocese of Toronto.



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