As the closing ceremony in Tokyo brings a magnificent summer of sport to an end, it’s time to reflect on what we’ve learned from the Olympics and Paralympics. Even the lowliest and least successful club rower can find wisdom to glean from our sporting heroes.
Here’s what I’ve learned from a season glued to the screen.
Sport can make the world a brighter place
In a summer fraught with grim news on the national and international stage, the Olympics and particularly the Paralympics were a bright beacon of light. As wildfires burned, hurricanes raged, people fell ill and Afghanistan was thrust into turmoil, the summer’s sporting events provided a welcome reminder of how sport can lift our spirits.
Who could fail to be moved by the presence of the Refugee Olympic Team, demonstrating the true meaning of the new Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”? Or by Afghan Paralympic athlete Hossain Rasouli’s personal best in the long jump after a perilous journey from his home country?
It was immensely encouraging, too, to see so many athletes who’d overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and made such huge sacrifices to compete. Watching them arrive in Tokyo and get back to doing what they do best felt like a glorious dose of normal life.
When life becomes more recognisable, let’s not forget how much we missed our sport when we couldn’t participate or watch it. Used well, it can be an amazing force for good.
Being sporting makes you happy
The smiles of Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy said it all. As they embraced and stood on the podium together, sharing a gold medal instead of competing in a jump-off, they showed just how a generous sporting attitude can make you happy.
“This is beyond sport,” said Barshim. “This is the message we deliver to the young generation.”
We’ve all seen things turn ugly in the heat of competition, from the disgruntled parent at the local regatta shouting at an umpire to the disappointed international athlete turning on their team-mates, but a bad attitude doesn’t make anybody more contented.
Who knows? Perhaps Mutaz and Tamberi will inspire crews to agree to share a win in the event of a dead heat instead of going for a re-row (though remember before you do this, there may not be enough pots to go round!).
Winning doesn’t always mean coming first
“This is a story of triumph; this is not a story of defeat,” said an emotional Ellie Robinson after coming fifth in the butterfly S6 and reflecting on the challenges she had had to overcome just to be there.
Although it was wonderful to see the Team GB medal count rising day by day (and in particular to see some of our Olympic and Paralympic rowers coming home with lovely, shiny bling), there were plenty of lessons to be learned from below the podium.
Again and again, we saw athletes finding meaning in the “medals and more” mantram, acknowledging the mental challenges involved in elite sport and using the Games as a way to learn how to do better next time.
That’s not to say we should ditch competition or start giving prizes to everyone – but it does affect our approach. Frances Houghton and Cath Bishop have both spoken powerfully about the liberation that is found when you strive to win but find a way to thrive and value yourself when you don’t. Amen to that.