For those of you that have been watching the Olympics, there has been some controversy that has erupted in the last few days with 8 badminton players being kicked out of the Olympics for playing not to win. Japan’s women’s soccer team, who became media darlings winning the 2011 Women’s World Cup, after an earthquake shattered their country, made an equally surprising admission that they also hadn’t played to win, as they tied South Africa in their last group game, ensuring a favourable geographic location for their next match.

The whole fiasco brings up situations and questions that I’ve waded through my entire career in terms of our society’s fixation on winning at all costs, often throwing integrity by the way side.  As much as I love the Olympics and events that represent reaching dreams on so many different levels, I sometimes think that as a society that we sometimes get so fixated on the goal, whether it be of winning or whatever society defines for us as “success” in all facets, sometimes we lose the point and the bigger picture of what it is all about.

I’ll get personal with an example that helped lead me to the idea that the celebration and weight we put on celebrating those who get to the top, without examining how they get there, isn’t necessarily a healthy one for our society.

A few years ago I had a friend who did something pretty awful to me. When we were having a conversation and wading through the situation she said something to me that stuck, “Ciara whether its sports or in life, I do whatever it takes to get what I want. I don’t care, I will do whatever it takes to get there.” This person happens to be an incredible athlete as well, and that attitude of doing whatever it takes to get to the top, is what took her to the Olympics in her sport and I’m going to bet money that she’ll medal some day before her career is over because of this cut throat mentality. In some ways you can’t blame her, or the Japanese or the badminton players; we live in an elite sport world, where a mentality of doing whatever it takes at all costs to stand at the top, is celebrated and encouraged.

When I was in this above-mentioned situation I reflected with a good friend of mine, who is Russian (aka as blunt as they come), and who isn’t an athlete, to get her perspective, as someone outside the elite sports world bubble. Her observation of the situation was interesting to me.

In her thick Russian accent, my good friend Yulya said, “Ciara, this situation isn’t surprising to me. You are all high-level athletes that through your sport are always focused on yourself. You’re always encouraged to be selfish and do what it takes to be the best you need this mentality to accomplish what you have. Of course these friends of yours don’t think about anything or anyone else.” She finished in her thick endearing accent, “Look at the bubble you all live in and the values that are important. This situation does not surprise me.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Not every athlete out there is willing to throw friends and integrity under the bus to get to a place where crowds cheer in adoration and their twitter followers grow exponentially by the day.

As people, as athletes, every day we are forced to make decisions about who we are, and what we want to represent. I remember being a young athlete and without experience struggling to answer these questions myself and trying to figure out how much of my core values I was willing to suppress in order to get to the top. These decisions were made with society’s metaphorical speakers blaring a message in the background, that our worth is in winning, of coming out “on top.” So in some respects you really can’t fault the Japanese women or the badminton players for sidestepping the integrity of the situation to get that societal stamp of worth and approval.

I’ll finish with another story that helped me put things into perspective for me. There was a point where I was in a really negative situation with soccer, where there was a lot of things going on in the environment that I was in that just didn’t jibe with the core of who I am. It was an environment I felt I had to be in if I wanted to have a shot at the big stage.

I went to a wonderful friend for advice, who had been on a national team for another sport, with a sister who was a 3 time Olympian in yet another sport. I was struggling for answers, and my friend put it for me simply, “Ciara in the words of B (her 3 time Olympian sister), at the end of the day, the Olympics, the World Cup are just 3 week tournaments with a lot of hype. You better make sure that the process is something that you are enjoying and that you’re proud to be a part of, otherwise it’s going to be pretty empty once you get there.”

So don’t get me wrong. Big events like the World Cup, the Olympics, are all an incredible opportunity to see the sport at the highest level, and to be inspired by the beauty of athletes, some of who have gotten through incredible odds to see their dreams come true. I think we are all drawn to the Olympic ideal of a celebration of everything good in the human spirit.

But its also important to keep it all in perspective. Once you strip away the glitz and glamour, at the end of the day, it’s simply another chance in our short lives to define ourselves by who we are, and the integrity of how we act, which is far greater than the titles of what we accomplish.

One thought

  1. What troubles me about players and teams throwing matches for the sake of “better” draws is the cynical view they’re taking that they might not be good enough to beat a certain opponent. Yes, the strategist in me can understand orchestrating a more “winnable” path to a medal, but the competitor in me says no matter what you’re going to have to win tough matches, and the only way to do that is to believe that you can defeat whomever they put up against you. Seeing top-ranked sides like China’s badminton team or Japan’s women’s soccer team throw matches despite their recent success is especially disturbing. And I can’t even imagine how those spectators felt, having paid to watch these sides compete, seeing them give something that can only be described as minimal effort. A once in a lifetime Olympic opportunity for some spectators (that traveled from around the world) turned into a debacle. Athletes have to remember, and this is especially so for Olympic athletes, that they represent something more than just their own interests, they represent their sport and their country.

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