A shift of mindset will let us take more from Olympics of the future | Cath Bishop

It’s time to ditch the old cliches and to change the way we think about Olympic athletes, who are humans rather than robots

Chris Boardman signalled the shift when he summed up British Cycling’s performance at the Tokyo Olympics: “Fewer medals but a better story.” What could he mean? We all know sporting performance pushes forward. Innovation never stops as athletes look deeper and search further to raise their game. The new territory this time is fresh vocabulary, human stories and different thinking.

The Paralympics are poised to begin, the Beijing Winter Olympics follow next year, with Paris 2024 not so far away. Olympians of different ages and from different nations are challenging us to shift our mindsets and broaden the lens on what we see and take from the Games. Our language as spectators, journalists, politicians or sports leaders needs checking. There was a new vernacular spoken in the performance arenas of Tokyo. Take your favourite most-quoted phrases and question whether an athlete would say them any more. Here’s three to start:

1. “Once you’re in the final, it’s anyone’s,” or: “It’s all about who wants it most.” Actually, on most occasions it’s about the athlete or team that are most in form. The mythical “will to win” that evades the “losers” is part of a mythical world that bears no relation to real high performance in 2021.

2. “Fourth place is the worst place in the world to finish.” Actually, if you asked an athlete whether you preferred to finish fourth or fifth, they’d choose fourth. I found coming seventh and ninth after underperforming immensely painful. Fourth place is universally greeted with anguish by the media. It’s a phrase trotted out without a moment’s thought, all because a man more than a century ago decided there would be three medals. Had he decided on four, then we’d all be in mourning about fifth-place finishers. In the Ancient Games, there was only one winner’s medal handed out. For some, fourth is an incredible achievement. Vicky Thornley placed fourth, recording the highest ever finish for a British female single sculler. The veteran pole-vaulter Holly Bradshaw stated that if she had her best performance and left it out there and came fourth, she’d be happy so long as she could land her best height.

3. “That was superhuman.” Actually, it was an extraordinary feat by a wonderful human being. That’s what makes it so incredible. The superhuman stuff only distances those athletes from the rest of us. The impact is, first, that we stop considering (and potentially later emulating) what they have achieved. Second, it leaves the winners isolated up on a precarious pedestal, waiting for their cloak of invincibility to vanish when sporting mortality inevitably catches up with them. Adam Peaty, alluring us to keep the superman image alive with that heroic lion tattooed on his arm and powerful physiological performance, confounded this narrative (along with his thoughtful coach Mel Marshall) as he spoke of his high-performance “weapons” of humility and gratitude before winning another gold in the 100m breaststroke.

Marginal gains talk had led us to see athletes as inhuman, robots, somehow a different species from the rest of us, no longer prey to randomness, luck or doubt. How refreshingly Jason and Laura Kenny challenged this, ironically coming from the home of marginal gains alchemy, British Cycling. When interviewed after winning her first medal and asked for thoughts on her next event, Laura Kenny simply said she would “keep on turning up and see how things go”. She is now the most decorated British female Olympian. It’s as far as you can get from an Al Pacino speech or a Sylvester Stallone soundbite but is as plainly authentic as can be. And our experience of sport is all the better for it.

After an extraordinary gold-medal performance in the keirin, Jason Kenny’s interview could not have been more wonderfully ordinary. His honesty and humility stripped bare the humanity behind an athlete who everyone expected to turn into an immortal hero. In commentating, Boardman said his achievements didn’t match his personality – I couldn’t disagree more. His achievements matched his personality perfectly. It’s our expectations that were out of kilter.

Jason Kenny, Great Britain’s most decorated Olympian
Jason Kenny, Great Britain’s most decorated Olympian, arguably confounds the usual expectations of how many expect elite athletes to conduct themselves. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/REX/Shutterstock

Consider how Kenny reached that last step of winning more gold medals than anyone else in Great Britain: he made a brilliant decision to set off from the front of the pack and gamble that no one would catch him. When asked about how he had prepared for this bold, risky tactic – the ultimate heroic move that surely proved his superhuman status – he explained it in the most unheroic way imaginable. On drawing the first position in the pack, he had asked his coach within in the final few tense, nerve-racking minutes before the race began: “If I see a gap, shall I risk it and go?” The coach’s reply had been unsure: “Hmm, maybe, if you think it’s enough.” Kenny blew a hole through the mirage of scientific precision and perfect planning that we have struggled to see beyond when watching our Olympians in recent times.

While the medal table was reported in the news headlines, we were discovering a broader dimension through the stories behind it. The table is looking a little one-dimensional and old-fashioned these days. It takes no account of funding, size of population or physiological advantage. It reveals nothing of adversities overcome or the role of lady luck. It tells no human stories. Any table is a narrow snapshot. There is a much broader picture if we open our eyes to look beyond.

We have work to do before Paris and, as our athletes recover and return to training, so we have our part to play: stubborn mindsets to change, cliches to ditch, and, just as the ancient Greeks would have taught us, vital storytelling skills to develop.

Cath Bishop won an Olympic silver medal in the coxless pairs with Katherine Grainger in 2004, and is a former diplomat and the author of The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed


Cath Bishop

The GuardianTramp

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