Earlier last night, the 2014 Winter Olympics closed in Sochi, Russia, with all the celebration and fanfare we have come to expect from the Olympic games. And, once again, the overall medal count was ruled by the American athletes. Except… oh wait.. that’s right… we did not win it this time. Russia did. Oh.
Truth be told, it was not a great year for Team USA on the not-so-frozen terrain of Sochi. From the very first days of competition, the disappointments and failures began rolling in. I was assured by multiple TV analysts that Shaun White was a lock for gold on the halfpipe. He finished fourth, with no medal around his neck. Hannah Kearney was another safe bet for gold in the moguls competition. But she slipped up and settled for a tear stained bronze. The USA took home bronze in team figure skating too. I wonder what color the medal would have been if Jeremy Abbott had not fallen down. Bode Miller got his medal, a nice rebound after he only managed 8th place in the downhill. World Champion Sarah Hendrickson, another athlete with a lot of hype leading into these games, could only manage 21st place in the ski jump with her injured knee. There were zero individual medals for our figure skaters, and the American speedskaters failed to medal in any individual event for the first time in 30 years. There was no better symbol of this failure than Shani Davis repeatedly finishing far behind the leader in his races. And how about Team USA hockey? As if the shocking last minute collapse by the women’s team was not enough, the men decided to top it with a complete disappearing act. No medal for you!
It seemed like every single day of competition was marked by which American athlete would choke or falter on that particular day. They did not win, so I guess that makes them losers. And if that is true, I want to take a moment and proudly salute all these American losers. I thank them. I applaud them. They are powerful role models to all our children.
Here’s the deal. Our kids need to see their idols fall. They need to see that the very best in the world can stumble, can falter, and even fail completely. They might enjoy seeing their heroes celebrate victory, but they need to see how they handle adversity too. I would argue they learn far more important lessons from an athlete who comes in 4th than one who wins the gold. Sure, Sarah Hendrickson is a world champion ski jumper and didn’t even sniff the medal stand. But how many young girls saw her battle back from a knee injury and proudly tackle that jump wearing bib #1, the first female ski jumper in Olympic history? How many saw Shani Davis congratulate and even applaud his fellow skaters in the midst of his own disappointments? How many saw the hockey teams line up and shake hands with their opponents after each stunning defeat? Or the women hold a positive team meeting after theirs? I know there are small armies of young people out there who worship Shaun White. I have seen them on the slopes. Seeing him finish fourth, and then extend a smiling embrace to each boarder who beat him? There is a priceless lesson in that act.
In all my years teaching 3rd and 4th graders, most of my students could handle winning okay. Sure there were some reminders about bragging or humility here and there, but winning came pretty natural and easy for most of them. A lot struggled with losing, though. I had many who really needed to learn how to handle setbacks with grace, class, and good sportsmanship. It is far harder to master that skill set than simply saying “good game” to all the kids you beat. Part of the problem? The sporting world typically focuses on the champion, the all-star, and the MVP. Rarely is that much air time given to the losing player or team, short of a brief interview leading into a commercial break. Fame, glory, titles… these are the things that dominate what our children see in sports.
I have spent a lot of time these last two weeks wondering why the Olympics are such a big draw. Why do sports we only see every four years captivate us so deeply? The gold medals and Cinderella stories are absolutely part of it. We always have and always will love the winners. But maybe the fact that failures and disappointments occur right there on prime time television is another draw. We see the favorite fall, and watch the great champion crumble, and then we see the entire aftermath. More often than not, that aftermath is a display of tremendous sportsmanship and camaraderie that extends beyond national borders. In many, we see emotional pride and tears of joy in self-accomplishment, regardless of final standings. It is a glorious display that someone can work hard and train for years, give it their very best shot, finish far from #1… and still act like a champion.
So, I congratulate all the American winners.
But I salute and thank all the American losers.
Those of you coming home with a medal less-golden than you expected? Those of you coming home with no medal at all? You are the greatest role models a kid could ask for. You truly are the best ambassadors of American sport. Most importantly, you are the ones I pray my daughter will admire as she grows.