The real gold medallists of the Tokyo Olympics 2020
How wonderful is it to be able to turn the TV on in the morning at breakfast and watch these incredible athletes after the most challenging and arduous 18 months the world has faced?
Getting lost in the Swimming, BMX Racing, Athletics, Gymnastics the list goes on and on. It’s simply fantastic, it is like an endless buffet of all you can eat sport, offering up the highest quality dishes to tantalise your taste buds and sate your sport, lusting appetite that has been building to a crescendo since the games were postponed last year.
And fittingly, just as the 2020 Tokyo Games are like no other, (with the IOC announcing their new updated Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together” at the opening ceremony to reflect the diverse and changing world we live in); behind the headlines of all the podium finishes, the real trailblazers, the real champions are those who will exit the games without a medal, those whose narrative and sacrifice transcends sport and touches all of our lives, in a way that serves to inspire, encourage and strengthen our human spirit.
The world didn’t bat an eyelid when Andy Murray elected to withdraw from the Men’s Singles Tennis due to an injury, to focus on the Men’s Doubles instead. But when US Gymnast Simone Biles elected to withdraw from the Gymnastics Team competition on mental health grounds, it seemed that this was unfathomable for many, inviting criticism, scepticism, verbal abuse and prejudice globally across social media.
She commented later:
“I don’t trust myself as much anymore. Maybe it’s getting older. There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world.”
“We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”
The world had rejected Simone’s reason for taking a step back, putting herself first and the demands and expectations of the world second, such is the stigma still around mental health. You can break your leg and pull out of a competition and receive sympathy, compassion and best wishes, but put your hand up and say that you are struggling and need to take time out for your mental health, and you open yourself up to every kind of criticism, verbal attack and commentary!
The prejudice and narrow-minded narrative around mental health issues still bubble under the surface and it takes an immensely courageous human being to step upon such a global platform and say I am not OK. I cannot carry on like this and I need time and help to work things through, to process, to heal and take a step away from my sport.
This is the Trailblazer; this is the Warrior and ironically this is the gold-winning medal performance right here. Simone’s legacy at this moment, by choosing not to perform on the world stage, stepping aside and staying true to herself, her needs, displaying huge amounts of self-awareness, fortitude, courage and self-love. All of this offers us glimmers of hope and a shining example of how to strive to be our true, authentic selves and in the face of global criticism and adversity, you still stand true to yourself and your values, no matter what.
Helen Glover and Polly Swann came 4th in their Olympic rowing final. They won’t be bringing back any hardware for their achievements, but their comeback story is in itself astonishing.
Helen decided during the pandemic in March 2020 to make a comeback and get back onto the GB rowing team. The 5 years since her gold medal-winning performances in Rio, she has had three children and committed herself fully to a gruelling training programme.
Polly was working nearly full time as a Doctor in the NHS whilst also juggling the demands and sacrifices you would expect from an elite athlete’s training programme.
The incredible part to this story is not that they came fourth, (which is in itself a huge feat), but that they managed to qualify and get to the Olympics at all by cramming four years’ worth of training and preparation into just six months, whilst working as an NHS Doctor in a global pandemic and having three children (including twins) under the age of four!
Helen commented in her post-race interview:
“Trying and failing is no problem as long as you try, and that goes out not just to my children but everyone out there.”
So, is winning all about getting a gold medal? Of course, it’s not! It’s all about getting out there, being focused and doing your best. You hear athletes say, “I gave it my all, I left it all on the track” and in life isn’t that the very best that anyone can do?
I applaud each athlete dedicated, dogged pursuit of a medal-winning performance at the Olympics, but when things don’t work out, we can’t turn around and criticise and point the finger as in the case with Simone Biles. Her bravery and courage need to be applauded not berated. Helen and Polly didn’t make the podium, but their story is nonetheless inspiring.
These women to me are the real champions. Their life stories and journeys continue to uplift and inspire. I suffer from depression and some days are a real struggle for me, and to have a figurehead like Simone Biles step up and say, I am finding this hard, I don’t want to do this anymore, is like someone starting to release a pressure valve for me inside, encouraging me to come forward and speak my truth. Making me feel that I am not alone or abnormal in some way.
Helen and Polly have firmly cemented that if you give any challenge or goal everything you have, then you can never fail. You might not get the outcome you would have wished for, but if you have done your best, what more can you do? What else is there? And there is great reassurance and peace of mind in this truth. Sometimes when things don’t go your way, when the storm approaches it is not to cause havoc, but simply to clear your path for better things to come, and this has certainly been true for me over the last 18 months.
So, whilst we focus each day on the fresh new servings of sport on the TV and the inevitable quest for Gold, let’s not lose sight of the backstories, the stories of courage and determination. For me, this is what the Olympics is all about, the joy, the miracles, the inspiration, the self-belief and the dedication. This is what is truly golden and whilst you cannot hang these emotions around your neck with a nice ribbon, you can use them to serve as inspiration for future generations to come, to encourage from the sidelines and shout: “give it your best regardless of the outcome” and “always stand in your power”, now surely that is worth its weight in Gold?
Cressida Stephenson is Director of EdenChase Associates, an independent D&I Search Specialist helping organisations achieve a truly diverse workforce.
Connect with Cressida HERE