You, Too Can Be an Olympian. As if.

Okay, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a world championship. There is a lot to be gained in setting up a competition for the best of the best. It improves the human race and is a great advertisement for sports in general.

But how about bringing an Olympic athlete to an elementary school to tell the children, “Go for your dreams. I did it, and you can, too!” And then the media interviews a couple of bright-eyed athletic types — you know, the ones that excel at everything already — and they coo about how much it has inspired them. Motivation all over the place, right?

But what about the rest of the class? You, know, the realistic ones that know they have no way in hell of doing anything of the sort, and are already rather tired of the hotshots lording it over them. For the ordinary kid, it’s just one more instance of society telling them, “You’re a loser. You’re no good at what we think is important, and you never will be.”

Let’s look at the average high school sports program. The winners comprise…what…5 % of the students in the school? And what are the other 95% of the children supposed to learn? That they’re losers, of course, and they’d better get used to it.

In Economic Terms

So, what’s the advantage? If the vast majority of us are losers, then the only way we can get satisfaction is by being fans of the winners. We get our egos all tied up in the team we root for.

Fast forward to the Olympics, which is the world-wide manifestation of this phenomenon. An incredibly small number of elite athletes compete, and literally billions of people around the world stake their personal sense of well-being (some of them betting large sums of money) on the results. That’s right, folks. It’s all about marketing. The athletes are a product, and we’re the target buyers.

The focus of the whole athletic program in the school is the winners, and the intention is to develop a heightened sense of competitiveness. And you may think that’s a good thing, but in reality, uber-competitive adults are not good for society, especially for their own families, and in the end not good for themselves. The “win at any cost” that the Olympic spirit fosters is an incredible detriment to society in the form of stress. I had a friend who competed at the Olympics and she suffered a breakdown when it was over.

Our whole system of athletics is meant to teach children to want to win. Not to enjoy the sport, but to enjoy winning. And in most sports, there’s only one winner with a silver and bronze as consolations. So, the whole system is designed for the benefit of a very few top athletes, and the rest are losers. If that’s not elitism, I can’t think of another definition.

And Then There’s Norway

The Norwegians, with a population just shy of 5.5 million, win more medals in the winter Olympics that any other country. Year after year. They must have a super competitive sports system, right? Wrong. Their system is called “Joy of Sport for All,” and it involves both children and parents.

Their program has no regional championships or publication of game scores, standings or player rankings for children under 11, and no national championship events for children prior to age 13. Competition is promoted but not at the expense of development.

In America, the land of helicopter parents and joysticking coaches, 80 percent of American youth athletes quit organized sports by age 15. With a population of 313 million, I guess they can afford it. My strongest image of Canadian sports parents is hockey moms screaming obscenities at volunteer referees. In Norway, parents and children are more likely to be participating in sports together.

The Nasty Side of Competitiveness

News from the world of sport that pushes the Olympics aside: the Nova Scotia goalie subjected to racist comments at a competition in P.E.I. Proponents of hyper-competitiveness will argue that it wasn’t really racism, it was just “trash talking,” and that’s an accepted part of sport. Well, I hope everyone agrees with me that racism is racism, no matter where it pops up, and trash talking has no part in sport.

And Then There’s Russia

A fifteen-year-old skater is given “heart medication,” and finds herself the centre of a doping scandal. Isn’t that the same government that is in the process of threatening to invade another country? Yep, they’ve sure got the desire to win.

The Bottom Line

Which is better for a child? To develop athletic ability and a love of sport, or to develop a burning desire to win at all costs? Well, if your answer is the first one, our sports programs are certainly not doing that. And if you prefer the second, think about it; the present format only succeeds with about 10% of the children you’re trying to affect. Of course, if you’re an elitist, that’s just fine with you.

And if you chose the second, you need to realize that the system warped you to think that way, and you might want to start looking at how that attitude has affected your health and wellbeing.

P. S. 

And if you insist that a child must compete in order to develop, there’s an answer to that, too. The most honest and consistent competition any athlete can find is themselves. Improvement, not winning, is a goal that helps everyone make progress. “Who did you beat today?” is far less effective than, “Where did you improve today?”


And for those of you who are making the predictable response, no, there’s nothing wrong with a medal for participating. For many children, having participated is an achievement. Anything that increases participation and the love of sport is a positive. I have competed at the highest regional level in my chosen sport, and while we never won a major race, I cherish my participation pennants, and take great pride in the fact that I matched up to that level.


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