Why did I write this post?
A few days ago Canadian running coach Peter Grinsberg shared a link on Facebook to a CBC interview with 1988 Olympic rower Jason Dorland. Dorland was part of the men’s eights rowing crew in Seoul that was expected to win, but instead placed a disappointing sixth in the final.
The interview was so gripping that my mind was immediately racing with thoughts in response to it. In this post, I want to share Dorland’s philosophy of “winning and losing” which he expresses with great articulateness and introspection in this honest 24-minute interview with Jim Brown, host of The Current on CBC. I encourage everyone to listen to the interview here. The discussion about the “Own the Podium” slogan and brand, our expectations of elite athletes, what motivates athletes to excel, and how coaches and society prepare (or don’t prepare) athletes for losing are all subjects of the utmost relevance while we are in the thick of the 2012 show in London.
Dorland’s 1988 Olympic experience
The sixth place finish was devastating for Dorland and his teammates and they were crucified by the Canadian media. During the interview, Dorland describes how he took a year off from the sport, but then returned, training hard and returning to a high level of fitness in a surprisingly short time. So what was wrong with that picture? He could have continued training and been part of the team in Barcelona.
Dorland explained that his training was fueled solely by anger. That anger gave him energy and motivation for training, but he said the anger “had spilled into my very being—I was angry, bitter, not very nice to be around.” He realized that operating in this mode for three years would be damaging psychologically, and chose to retire from rowing, a decision he does not regret though the eights crew did redeem themselves in Barcelona with a gold medal.
A transformation in thinking about losing
Dorland describes how meeting Robyn Meagher, a middle-distance track star who eventually became his wife, was the catalyst for a transformation in his attitude about competition. Meagher believed that you played for the joy of competition whether you win or lose. You didn’t race to “kill” competitors.
At first, Dorland thought her philosophy was “ludicrous” and couldn’t possibly lead to high performance, but then he saw that it did in fact work for an athlete at the highest international level; moreover, it made both winning and losing options that could be accepted psychologically and intellectually. Meagher viewed less-than-perfect races as opportunities to learn. When she had to withdraw from the 2000 Olympics (her third Games) because of injury, it wasn’t the end of the world for her.
Fast-forward to 2012
Jason Dorland is now an award-winning coach at Ridley College, and the author of the book Chariots and Horses: Life Lessons from an Olympic Rower. In the CBC interview, he says he sees his loss in Seoul as the greatest gift he’s ever received—because it led to his learning things about himself that he needed to face. This transformation, he believes, has made him a better person, coach, husband, and father.
I’d like to further explore Dorland’s ideas about winning and losing in elite sport, because it seems to me that his philosophy, initially illuminated for him by his wife Robyn Meagher, is at the root of his success as a coach. This discussion inevitably includes Canada’s “Own the Podium” slogan and is, of course, relevant to the London Olympics and the reaction of the media and the public to our athletes’ performances.
Own the Podium
Dorland is quick to point out that the Own the Podium program has given many athletes wonderful support in the form of money, better coaching, and better facilities. However, he’s not keen about the branding of Own the Podium—in other words, the attitude and philosophy behind the slogan.
In my opinion, the slogan is a piece of marketing brilliance; it’s catchy, memorable, and excites patriotic emotions. But when I think about it more deeply, it’s an aggressive stance that promotes the idea that Canada should “crush” the competition, and that only podium finishes are worthy of recognition. “Own the podium” also carries connotations of the consumerist society where a product is more important than a process. In other words, in sports, the medals are all-important.
The reality of world-class competition
In Dorland’s opinion (which I share), the Own the Podium philosophy doesn’t give enough weight to supporting athletes who’ve achieved their personal bests and made it to the pinnacle of their sport (the Olympic Games). Implying that only medal performances are a worthy goal for Canadian athletes doesn’t take into account the reality of world-class competition.
For example, in the sport of track and field, a sport in which even the poorest countries can participate, Olympians come from a huge pool of thousands of talented athletes. Another significant and tragic reality of modern sport is that many who win medals do so because they’re cheating with drugs. Can we simultaneously demand that our athletes be “clean” and then condemn them if they fail to win medals?
Moreover, Dorland reminds us that the Olympic creed makes no mention of medals. Instead, it talks about bringing athletes together and celebrating high performance. Those of us who have competed know that our competitors are not our enemies—they are our greatest allies in our quest for high performance.
The media has a responsibility to understand what excellence at the Olympic level entails. If the media delved more deeply into athletes’ stories, the public would have a better appreciation of how good our athletes are, whether they win medals or not. Through their stories, athletes can give their countries (especially youth) a much more lasting legacy than mere medals. They can talk about the joy and passion they feel for their sport, the injuries, heartbreak, and obstacles they encounter, the sacrifices they and their families have to make, and the ways sports changed their lives in positive ways.
Why do Canada’s elite athletes deserve support, whether they will stand on the podium or not?
Canadian Olympians don’t have to be medalists to be superb role models. All our athletes who’ve made it to London 2012 have inspirational stories. With their positive messages, they can be pivotal influences on young people as well as encouraging adults to turn their lives around. What are some of the positive ways sport changes lives?
1) Sports offer camaraderie with new friends, people who are positive, energetic, and believe in excellence.
2) Everyone (regardless of talent or body type) can improve in a sport with consistent work, learning, and patience.
3) This improvement leads to great self-esteem.
4) Believing in oneself as an athlete can lead to a new-found confidence that leads to striving for excellence in all areas of one’s life.
5) Participation in sports often leads to a more positive body image, especially for women. Sports challenge traditional ideas about beauty. In track and field alone, look at all the examples of different body types that are beautiful, strong, and capable of seemingly superhuman performances.
6) Participation in sports leads to a realization that health and a healthy lifestyle contribute to a kind of beauty that is truly more than skin deep.
7) Sports often enable people to replace negative addictions (the need for recreational drugs or other types of risky behavior) with a more healthy “addiction” to a sport or training regimen.
Own the Podium implies that losing is unacceptable
According to Dorland, the “Own the Podium” slogan implies that athletes fail when they don’t medal. This is bad for the athletes and bad for the general public; it’s an unrealistic goal, as I wrote above.
Dorland believes that a serious problem with the Own the Podium philosophy, and the prevalent attitude about winning and losing it encourages, is that it doesn’t teach athletes how to lose. In fact, Dorland thinks that the pressure to win implied by the slogan is probably detrimental to some athletes’ performances. “Any time you race from a place of fear, you limit your performance,” he believes. Dorland says that allowing an honest conversation about the possibility of losing “demystifies” losing, enabling an athlete to focus on the task at hand rather than being distracted by an unbearable fear of losing.
He states, “For young athletes, especially, who have led very sheltered lives where every moment is planned by coaches and other sports personnel, how do they cope if they lose?” Dorland notes that “athletes are often defined by their failures rather than by their accomplishments.” He feels this is terribly wrong: “The way athletes perform at the Olympics doesn’t define them as human beings.” Dorland states in no uncertain terms that no athlete should ever have to apologize to his country for having an off moment at the Olympics. Sickness, injuries, and inexplicable “off-days” are all part of the game.
Face it, human beings aren’t machines. Before every race, there are always endless discussions by the aficionados and statisticians of the sport, but it’s the possibility of surprises, even shocks, that gives the sport its exciting and transcendent moments.
Why do we watch the Olympics?
We love watching these athletes who show us the ultimate physical potential of the human animal: we are spellbound by their speed, agility, gracefulness, power, technical skill, and beauty. But we also recognize not just the physical beauty and skill, but the mental qualities that these athletes possess: focus, intelligent tactics, courage, and the willpower that takes them to the limits of human endurance.
And we remember that sport is just a game—a microcosm of life—but the Olympics are aurely one of the most fantastic Games. It’s all of the athletes together who give us entertainment and inspiration at its best, not just the medalists.
Olympic Training Log
August 6, 1988
AM: Did 1hr40min easy cycling with George in Gatineau Park. Legs a bit tired, injuries not bad.
August 7, 1988
AM: Did 2hr25 cycling in Gatineau Park—pushing steadily on hilly route. Did a little swimming in Meech Lake. Stomach very bad.
August 8, 1988
AM: Ran 45 min on grass near Dow’s Lake, canal, Mooney’s Bay. Moderate pace—ground rough. Heel sore at first but warmed up. Stomach still feeling bad. About 6½ miles.
AM-2: Ran 17 min on trails around Meech Lake—fun running. 2½ miles. Did some swimming after.
August 9, 1988
AM: Swim workout at Fitness Institute. 1025m warmup. 5 sets of 150m, 100m. Times 2:53, 1:53, (long rest, talked to Beth), 2:50, 1:51, 2:54, 1:53, 2:53, 1:53, 2:55, 1:55.
PM: Weights—“pull endurance”. 68 min—added situps, hamstring curl and leg extension, followed by 10 min on bike. Still pretty sick today.
August 10, 1988
AM: Did workout at Belt Line with Paul and Joseph. 19 min hard warmup. 4 x 3 min, 4 x 2 min, 4 x 1 min, all with 1 min rest. Pushed hard—stayed with guys on a few, not too far behind on others. Felt good except stomach upset near end. About 7½ miles.
PM: Lifecycle workout. 24 min, level 6, level 9. 14 min more, level 9, level 7. Felt tough. Not as sick today.
August 11, 1988
AM: Weights—“push-strength” plus hamstring curls, leg lift on incline, some bounding drills. 64 min.
PM: Bike in country with George—1 hr 5 min. Pretty sick today.
August 12, 1988
AM: Did 30 min continuous on stationary bike. Very sick.
PM: Did swim workout at Fitness Institute. 1025m warmup—about 21:40. 5 x 100m—times 1:53, 1:52, 1:52, 1:51, 1:51. 400m—7:52. 5 x 100m—1:53, 1:54, 1:54, 1:54, 1:54. Good workout.
This week: 16½ miles running, 3 outside bike rides, 68 min stationary bike, 2 swim workouts, 2 weight workouts.