While I recognize the darker side of the Olympic movement: the politics, the commercialization, the use of precious resources for insanely large venues that are never used again, post-games, in countries that can’t afford them (no, this isn’t a negative article about the Games!), I celebrate how the Olympics are an important coming together for a world that needs it. Think about it: how many other occasions do we have where the world comes together in a positive way like an Olympics? Not many.
When I think about it what I love most about the Olympics is both the excellence it inspires and the character it reveals of people under pressure. In another blog I will describe what I have witnessed working with athletes over the past 17 years about excellence. For now, I would like to describe how the Olympics can also reveal character under pressure, something we at the Institute for Healthand Human Potential (IHHP) care a lot about.
Character Under Pressure
Sara Renner was competing for Canada in her second Olympics in Torino, Italy in 2006. After years of training and travelling on the cross country circuit, Sara was as prepared as she would ever be entering an Olympic games.
Sara and her partner Beckie Scott competed in the team sprint event which meant that they were to ski six laps of the cross country course, alternating laps between them. They went into the race as heavy favourites to medal. The cross country race was scheduled to start at 10:00AM on February 14 in Pragelato (although I wasn’t at the venue that day, I was there the following day and I can tell you Pragelato is this gorgeous little town of 450 people nestled in a beautiful valley in the Italian Alps).
When the starting gun went off the Canadians got off to a flying start and on Sara’s second lap of the course they were leading the pack.
In the third lap of the six-lap sprint relay final, the unthinkable happened: her ski pole snapped. If you have ever cross-country skied before, you know that breaking your pole is like breaking your leg: you simply cannot continue with any speed. Renner slowed right down. A Finn passed her. A Swede passed her. Then, a Norwegian passed her. Before her eyes, went the gold, the silver, and the bronze medal.
At that moment it seemed as if it was all slipping away: the dreams, the hard work, the sacrifices, the rehab from injuries, the time away from friends and family – everything.
Enter a Norwegian man named Bjornar Håkensmoen. He was coach of the of Norwegian cross-country ski team. He must have been pleased to see his team slide into medal position. The Canadians, after all, were heavily favored.
Just as Sara was struggling to hold her ground the Norwegian ski coach rushed to her side and gave Sara a new ski pole.
The replacement pole was 12cm too long for Sara but it gave her what she needed to fight back. Sara made it to the transition zone and her partner, Beckie Scott, skied like a mad woman to get back in the race. Bjørnar’s act of humanity under fire allowed Sara and Beckie to finish the race and win the silver medal.
How did the Norwegian team do? In fourth place, just out of the medals.
If it hadn’t been for the loan of the ski pole, the Norwegians rather than the Canadians would have been on the podium.
This is one of those stories that I find so incredibly inspiring about the Olympics. In life and at work, we are asked to make difficult choices under pressure when much is on the line. For Bjornar Håkensmoen, his team had much ‘on the line’ and he made his choice. This, to me, is how the Olympics can be such a positive force in the world. It can inspire us and remind us of what’s possiblewhen we face difficult choices. And that, sometimes, there is a bigger purpose than simply winning.
Håkensmoen claims he simply reacted like any good sport should, humbly telling a Canadian newspaper that Norwegian policy calls for handing over poles or skis in time of need.
“We talked about it at our team meeting the night before,” he told the paper. “We are a country which believes in fair play.”
Humility, courage, character…just 24 days to go till London. I can wait!