Not all Olympic stories end in golden glory – there are other types of glory on display and lessons for us all to learn…
The Winter Olympics are upon us. Nineteen days of snowbound sporting excellence, with displays of triumph and despair, as almost 3,000 athletes from 91 nations chase their dreams. Dreams can be big or small and for many of us the thought of completing 26 consecutive days of exercise is like competing in our own Olympics, so what can we learn from these inspirational athletes who have devoted their lives to sport.
For some, nothing less than gold will suffice. But for others, such as YeBenjamin Alexander, simply making the start line is an astonishing achievement. Alexander will become the first ever Olympic alpine skier for Jamaica when he takes part in the Giant Slalom at the Games. t the former DJ only skied for the first time six years ago, at the age of 32, when he was playing at a party in Whistler, Canada.
Life lessons & resilience
Olympic history is filled with triumphant tales of people overcoming adversity to achieve the seemingly impossible. While most of us may not be bound for Olympic glory anytime soon, at buddyboost, the employee wellbeing tool, we believe that there are lessons we can all learn from their humbling stories, and inspiration to be drawn from their dauntless approach to life’s challenges.
Challenges such as the one faced by Kieran Behan, an Irish gymnast who was told he would never walk again when he had a cancerous tumour removed from his thigh at the age of ten. After 15 months in a wheelchair, he dumbfounded his doctors by starting to walk, and soon found himself training back in the gym. On his return to gymnastics, he suffered a terrible fall from the high bar in training, and the resulting head injury led to him missing a year of school.
Even then, his travails weren’t at an end. On the eve of the European Championships, he snapped his knee, and in the resulting lay-off, considered quitting the sport. But he persevered, and finally became the first ever Irish gymnast to qualify for an Olympic Games at London 2012, before competing again in Rio four years later. Today, he is a successful gymnastics coach in Austria.
Kieran’s triumph over adversity is a lesson in determination, dedication and indomitability. In our own lives, we will all face challenges, be they physical or mental, and moments of despair. It is not the nature of the challenge, but how we respond to it, that defines us.
Winning comes in many forms
As with Kieran, Gabriele Anderson-Schiess didn’t trouble the medallists, but won her own personal battle. In the first ever women’s Olympic Marathon, run in stifling heat in Los Angeles in 1984, she missed the final water station, and by the time she entered the Olympic stadium at the end of the race, was suffering with heat exhaustion. With her legs buckling underneath her, officials approached her to remove her from the track, but she waved them away. Her final, agonising lap of the track took her almost six minutes, but when she crossed the line, her courage and determination became one of the games’ iconic moments.
She later said: “Now, looking back, I see that people kind of identify with you, because they see the struggle, and they see that if you really set your mind to, you overcome a lot of obstacles.” Her story clearly demonstrates that achievement comes in many forms. The buddyboost focus on pursuing your own goals emphasises that you don’t have to be the strongest, or run the furthest or the fastest, to get rewards from physical exercise. The pursuit of your own targets, however modest they may be, is where the satisfaction and sense of achievement can be found.
Wilma: the greatest Olympian you’ve probably never heard of
Perhaps the athlete with the most inspirational story in the whole of Olympic history is the great Wilma Rudolph. Born the 20th of 22 siblings, she suffered infantile paralysis as a result of polio, causing her serious weakness in her left leg and foot. She wore a leg brace and an orthopaedic shoe until the age of 12.
Her mother travelled with her 50 miles on the bus every week to Nashville for treatments to gain the use of her weakened leg. And four times every day, members of her family gave her massage treatments on her leg. At high school, she discovered a remarkable facility for sprinting. At the age of 16, just four years after discarding her leg brace, Wilma became the youngest member of the US Olympic team to be selected for the 1956 Melbourne Games, where she won a bronze in the 4x100m.
A year later, she gave birth to her first child. But with assistance from her family, she attended college, and returned to athletics. In 1960, in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals, in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. When she retired, aged just 22, she was the world record holder in all three disciplines. Thereafter, she dedicated her life to teaching, and to non-profit work.
Wilma Rudolph’s whole story epitomises what buddyboost is all about. Her achievements came not just as a result of her own tireless work, but thanks to the encouragement and support of others: Her mother, the family members who massaged her, the medical staff who oversaw her rehabilitation. The buddyboost programme, with its focus on teamwork and mutual encouragement and support, is all about people helping each other, building teamwork and camaraderie, and inspiring each other to reach their goals and hit their targets.
Simone shines a light on mental health
As athletes, Olympians are held up to be role models, and fewer more than Simone Biles, one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, and winner of a staggering four golds at the Rio Olympics in 2016. She went into last year’s Tokyo Games heavily fancied to repeat, or even surpass, the achievement. But what unfolded at the games was, in many ways, far more significant.
Under extraordinary amounts of pressure, Biles felt that her mental health was suffering, and she was not in the right mindset to compete. With the world looking on, she withdrew during the team final and then withdrew ahead of the all-around final and individual events of vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, saying: “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and wellbeing.”
Her courageous decision, not just to withdraw, but to be open about her reasons for doing so, opened up a global conversation about mental health, and gave a lie to the idea of athletes as superhuman beings with unshakeable self-belief.
In fact, research suggests that an estimated 35% of athletes have difficulties with their mental health, manifesting as eating disorders, burnout, depression and anxiety. American rower Regina Salmon, part of the USA Olympic eight in Tokyo, has said: “I’ve yet to meet a single professional or elite athlete who doesn’t have bad days or doesn’t have a hard time with mental health at one point or another. Just like getting sore from weights or being injured, your mental health gets broken down and gets built back up too.”
With this in mind, the IOC has introduced Athlete365, an online toolkit for Olympians centred around mental wellbeing, ahead of these Winter Olympics. There is also a dedicated mental health hotline for athletes, and teams will have psychologists and psychiatrists embedded at the Olympic Village.
In recent years, other sports stars, including household names such as Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes, Adam Peaty, Freddie Flintoff and Tyrone Mings have also opened up about their own mental health struggles. The realisation that these strong, successful role models are also susceptible to their own dark times has helped to shed the taboo nature around discussing mental health. At buddyboost, we have found that many of our own users have benefitted from open and honest discussion of their feelings on the app, and the boundless support and understanding they receive is testimony to the way the conversation around mental health has opened up in recent years. It is a conversation that becomes a little bit easier every time someone has the courage to share.