Lessons from London from the PHI Athletes

AFTER an incredible display of athleticism, sportsmanship and first world architectural marvels, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London has finally come to an exhausting close.  Exhausting in a most positive way, mind you.  It has been a splendid 16 days of physical and athletic prowess that drew interest and viewership to sports from the familiar (basketball and swimming) to the obscure (canoe sprint and trampoline).   And thrilling as it was to watch the different events in the comfort of my bedroom, I did find time to glean some valuable lessons from the Games, picking up bits of inspiration and influence worth mentioning (and hopefully, practicing).

Lesson #1:  Fight To The Finish.  The men’s triathlon was an anticipated three-horse race among British brothers Alistair (gold) and Jonathan (bronze) Brownlee and Spain’s Javier Gomez (silver), whose abilities would most likely end in a sprint finish for the world’s three most dominating Olympic-distance triathletes (It didn’t).  Not so for the distaff side.  The women’s triathlon was a virtual open contest, with some ‘on paper’ front-runners predicted to take to the podium, but no dominant figure clearly emerging.  Fast-forward to the finish line to find Swiss miss Nicola Spirig edging Sweden’s Lisa Norden for the gold in a photo finish.  The judges eventually ruled in favor of Spirig.  One can imagine the level of intensity involved in pushing those last few strides to cross the tape.  It’s never quite over till it’s over.

Lesson #2:  Rise Above Adversity.  Kenyan Sally Kipyego, who won silver in the women’s 10,000 meters, was four years old when her father died, leaving her sickly mother to raise seven children in abject poverty.  When Sally was eleven, a brother’s friend figured in a bicycle accident.  To get medical help, she ran seven miles to the nearest clinic only to be kicked out by the doctor, who was intoxicated.  Her impoverished childhood and tragic life encounters spurred Sally’s desire to become a nurse, so she could help provide better healthcare in her native country.  Sally went on to become an athletic scholar at Texas Tech University, earning a nursing degree in 2009.

Lesson #3:  You Can’t Please Everyone – And You Don’t Have To.  Michael Phelps, the most bemedalled athlete in Olympic history, came into the Summer Games bearing on his broad shoulders the highest expectations of continuing the gold rush that began eight years ago at the 2004 Games in Athens.  The pressure of delivering on every single swimming event he was entered in finally took its toll in his first event, the 400m individual medley, where he finished fourth, but more significantly, missing a podium place for the first time since 2004.  This ‘woeful’ performance triggered a hail of criticism hurled against Phelps, with pundits and fence sitters alike citing reasons that ranged from overtraining and burn out to waning competitiveness and internal tensions.  The flak abated somewhat, as The Baltimore Bullet managed silver in his next two events, the 4 x 100m freestyle relay and the 200m butterfly.  But Phelps wasn’t done.  He stormed back to stand atop the podium toting gold in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay, the 200m individual medley, the 100m butterfly, and the 4 x 100m medley relay.  Despite these monumental achievements, some quarters continued to hurl brickbats in Phelps’ direction.  But with 22 medals (18 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze) to his name, nothing can change the fact that Michael Phelps is the Olympic Games’ most decorated athlete — a record that will stand for a very long time.

Lesson #4:  Walk The Talk.  Jamaican speed demon Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt, also known as the world’s fastest human, had said at one time “People always say I’m a legend, but I’m not.  Not until I’ve defended my Olympic titles.  That’s when I’ve decided I’ll be a legend.”  After crushing the competition in the 100m, 200m, and 4 x 100n relay (and becoming the first man to win in all three events consecutively), he was quoted as saying “I’m now a legend.  I’m also the greatest athlete to live.”  Bold and brazen words, yes, but backed by equally incredible performances.

Lesson #5:  Let Your Talent Do The Talking.  As much as Bolt stands out for his outrageous natural talent as well as his utter lack of modesty, majority of the athletes who stood at the podium receiving gold, silver or bronze opted to keep their mouths shut and just get the job done.  These athletes showed the workman’s (and workwoman’s) admirable ethic of doing the work and getting it done as best they could, with nary a complaint (about faulty equipment/officiating) or excuse (for not achieving their goals).

Lesson #6:  Be Humble In Victory.  China’s rapid emergence as a world sports power can be attributed (but not exclusively) to a shrewd and astute selection of specific sports and events that its athletes can excel in and dominate.  The sweep of the table tennis, badminton and majority of the diving events by Team China, as well as the second-place finish in the overall medal tally, serve as testament to this successful planning strategy.  Amidst its remarkable medal harvest (second only to the USA), little has been heard from China’s athletes or coaches about how great they have performed or how dominating they have become.  Instead, the athletes are humble in their triumphs, ascribing to the principle of continuous improvement with the goal of bringing more glory to their country.

Lesson #7:  Don’t Give Up — Even When All Seems Hopeless.  It’s easy to fold in the face of strong competition, or worse, being behind by a huge margin and having to play catch up.  The phenomenal fightback of the Russian men’s volleyball team from two sets down against Olympic volleyball superpower Brazil shows that it is possible to snatch victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat.  It took a lot of steely nerve and teamwork to come back from trailing 22-19 in the third set to turn the tide on what looked like a virtual win for the boys from Brazil.  But the Soviet spikers never gave up the fight, clawing back and taking the next three sets to stun a befuddled and outplayed Brazilian squad.

Lesson #8:  Go With Your Gut.  An article in Time magazine’s Summer Olympics special issue which centered on The Science of Choking revealed in a scientific study that “athletes under stress choke when too many thoughts flood the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that houses informational memory.”  The study revealed that when athletes worry too much, there is a misallocation of resources and the brain becomes too busy.  This takes away a lot of energy and work from the motor cortex, which controls the planning and execution of movements.  In plain vanilla, the message is simple:  Don’t overthink.  Go with the flow and/or your gut, and chances are, you’ll do fine (or maybe even great).

Lesson #9:  Win Convincingly. Korean epee fencer, Shin Lam battled German Britta Heidemann for the right to move on to the gold medal match.  In the lead and with the match clock down to zero, a horrified Shin was taken aback when the clock was reset to one second.  Upon resumption, Heidemann made the do-or-die hit that resulted in Shin’s relegation to the bronze match against China’s   Sun Yujie (which Shin later lost). Shin’s loss stands among the biggest controversies of the Games.  It was put under protest/appeal, which like the Philippines’ protest of light fly-weight boxer Mark Barriga‘s equally controversial loss to Kazakh Birzhan Zhakypov where the Filipino was deducted two points for excessive ducking, went for naught.  Both cases illustrate the need to win convincingly in order to put enough distance between one’s opponent and himself/herself, if only to guarantee winning by a ‘safe’ margin.

Lesson #10:  Own Up— And Do The Right Thing.  This final lesson is dedicated to the Philippine Olympic Committee, the Philippine Sports Commission, and the various national sports bodies and associations that continuously draw from a bottomless well of excuses to explain the medal drought that dates back to the 2000 Sydney Games.  The same yawning well yields the reasons for the country’s poor showing at various international competitions such as the Asian Games and the Southeast Asian Games.  Pity that there are no medals given for politicking, foot-dragging, excuse-making, and fund misappropriation.  Nowthat’s a sure gold right there. Instead of sending our unprepared, underfunded and overmatched athletes to international sports contests, not unlike sending lambs to be slaughtered, we should have real long-term plans with realistic goals, overseen and led by people who actually care for the country’s sports program, its athletes, and the future. Philippine sports doesn’t need more people who talk big and/or who got their positions through political appointments, only to be the first to shirk off responsibility at the first sign of trouble.  Philippine sports needs people who will own up to failure, but who also possess the iron will to buckle down to build a lasting and strong sports program.

When all is said and done, more is said than done.  I didn’t make that (line) up, but I believe it best expresses the management style that has pervaded the halls and walls of the country’s various sports organizations for the past decades.  The Philippines is not in need of a hero.  The Philippines is in need of a generation of heroes.

Which brings to mind the London 2012 Games slogan that may have been lost in the melee of the spectacular record-breakers, the breath-taking performances, and fabulous opening and closing ceremonies.  Inspire a generation, it challenges.

Here’s hoping we’re all up to the challenge.”