“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well” said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympics. But is that really true? ‘It’s the taking part that counts’ is a phrase I hear most commonly used sarcastically, and spending my waking hours surrounded by elite athletes the focus on winning definitely trumps taking part.
I have spent much of the past year contemplating this idea. Although I am currently at the Olympic games, I didn’t get into rowing because I had a dream of being stood at the top of the Olympic podium. I stumbled upon a sport that I fell in love with, and chose to keep rowing because I still love the sport and have remained curious as to how much faster I can be, to testing my mental and physical limits, and because I love the challenge of chasing the next goal. I also passionately believe that sport is integral for a healthy society; on an individual level sport has huge physical and mental benefits and on a societal level sport brings people together through small communities as well as on a national scale.
There is an increasing discourse on how a focus on winning or being the best has seeped into every area of society. Our education system is a competition, focused around exam results and league tables. Business’ compete to make the highest profit, with goals of growth being an end rather than a means. Politics is a vicious battle for voter approval opposed to a productive conversation with an element of compromise to best meet the needs of a diverse population. There are of course examples of the contrary, and winning in itself is not a bad thing, but problems arise when winning or losing begins to define who we are and what we do.
I have spent much of this year feeling conflicted as I have pondered these ideas whilst preparing for the Olympic Games. As mentioned above, I firmly believe that there is more value to sport than winning gold medals, and I know that who I truly am will not change because of the outcome of a race. However I still want to win. I would be lying if I told you otherwise. I am a competitive person and that is part of who I am. I am driven by a desire for constant improvement, the eternal hunt for more speed. My initial responses to certain decisions and situations this last year has led to some tough conversations and hard internal reflections on what my values are and purpose is. I felt guilty that there was this competitive side to me that seemed to contradict my core beliefs.
Then my sister sent me an Elizabeth Day video entitled ‘What if your burden is also your gift?’. It was one of those penny dropping moments. I realised that it is the competitive side of me that has got me where I am today. The fact that I am driven to be the best I can possibly be underpins everything I do. It is what makes me get up those few minutes earlier each morning so I have that extra time to stretch and prepare for the training ahead. It is what makes me complete every last second of the core circuit at the end of a three session day. It is why I was able to complete months of sessions alone in my backyard during a pandemic despite dreading each time I had to drag the erg outside. It is why I have turned down invitations to parties and weddings when they mean sacrificing training, sleep and recovery. It is how I have ended up sat in the middle of the GB women’s eight with Olympic Rings on my chest.
This Tokyo 2020 Olympics is unique in many ways; covid, no spectators, equality of competition spaces for female athletes, Team GB sending more female than male competitors for the first time, and significantly, a change to the Olympic motto has been approved. The word ‘together’ has been added to ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. This emphasises that together, regardless of competition outcomes, we can use the power of sport for good. Sport by nature always has a winner, and it is not a bad thing to strive win. But sport is about far more than winning and I think that is the message that Baron Pierre de Coubertin was trying to get across. As Olympic athletes on the largest sporting stage in the world, we have a responsibility to grasp this concept and feed it back into all areas of society where winning should never be the end goal.
I am beyond proud that I am going to be an Olympian. This will be a new aspect to my identity that I know I have a responsibility to develop and utilise for good over the coming years. But for these next few days as the games unfold, it is a privilege to allow myself to tap completely into my competitive side. I want to make every stroke as fast as possible, push my limits higher than I think I can, and to commit to be part of a team that is stronger together than the sum of its parts. I want to enjoy every moment and leave this unforgettable experience knowing that I gave it my all and together, as 11,000 Olympians, we created something incredible for the world to enjoy.
Note: Many authors contributed to my thinking on this topic through books and podcasts, including Cath Bishop, Pippa Grange, Brene Brown, Simon Sinek and Elizabeth Day.