Not so Gold Medal Moments at the Olympics

When I arrived at my daughter’s preschool one day this week to pick her up, she greeted me with a great big smile and a gold medal around her neck. In fact, all her classmates were sporting Torino-inspired medals, made out of old gold AOL freebie discs.

Since the Winter Games began February 10th, the teachers at my daughter’s school have been steeping their 3, 4 and 5 year old students in Olympic lore. They’ve been learning about sportsmanship and the Olympic spirit by “discussing” the Olympic Creed which states, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.” More succinctly put – it’s not all about winning.

It’s a concept that’s still foreign to preschoolers, who are developmentally and therefore understandably, still in the “all about me” phase. “I’m not sure it really sunk in,” is how the preschool director put it when I asked about the kids’ reaction to the Olympic Creed. After watching 17 days worth of coverage from Torino, I think you could sadly say the same thing about too many of this year’s top crop of athletes.

Take for example American speed skaters Chad Heddrick and Shani Davis. Davis, as you probably know by now, won the individual men’s 1,000 meters, after choosing to save his energy by passing up on participating in the team pursuit. His gold medal is the first ever to be earned by a black athlete in an individual winter Olympic sport. But the historic first, and Davis’ accomplishment, was sullied by teammate (and multi-medalist) Heddrick, who had a public hissy fit over Davis’ decision NOT to complete for the team. In the UNsportsmanlike conduct event – Heddrick takes the gold.

Silver in UNsportsmanlike conduct goes to figure skater Irina Slutskaya. Sure, the media pressure, intensified by NBC’s tear-jerking profile of the Russian diva, was probably too much for anyone to handle. But following her clunky performance and fall in the final skate, the 27-year old Slutskaya stomped out of the “kiss and cry” box after seeing her scores. And then, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Gwen Knapp put it, Slutskaya “yanked (her bronze medal) off her neck after a spell of obligatory sweetness during the awards ceremony.” Although the final performance of America’s Sasha Cohen was just as heartbreaking, she was able to handle the defeat. Calling her silver medal “a gift,” Cohen maintained an Olympic-quality demeanor and graciousness that should win her hearts, minds and a spot on the Wheaties box.

And the bronze medal in the Unsportsmanlike conduct goes to the entire US men’s ski team. Going into the games, the team had the self-absorption to label itself “Best in the World.” That, in addition to the media-fed boastings of Bode Miller, should have primed the whole world for a games-gone-bad scenario for the US team. To be fair, the team’s near shut-out in all the men’s alpine events quickly quieted them down. By the time the US’s Ted Ligety won gold in the men’s combined, the American team had returned to earth and regained its humility.

Ego, admittedly, plays a huge role in sports. Without ego, and the relentless drive to compete that it produces, most of the athletes in Torino never would have reached Olympic competition level. Unfortunately, sportsmanship and ego don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. But it’s the athletes who actually manage to maintain both who end up shining the most in the Olympic spotlight.

Oddly enough, it was the athletes considered rebels and rule breakers who came out of Torino as the truest Olympians. Each and every rad-speaking snowboarder who “threw down” and “podiumed,” did so with skill, smiles, grace, gallantry and a real sense of sportsmanship and Olympic spirit that hasn’t been seen in years. Seth Wescott, the gold medalist in snowboard cross, put it best when he declared snowboarding as “the heart and soul of the Olympics.”

If there’s anything I want my 5-year old daughter to remember about these Olympics, it’s that heart and soul – that Olympic idea that just being there is reward enough for those who have dedicated their lives to attain excellence in their sport.

It’s the smiling face of 17-year old Emily Hughes following completion of her first Olympic competition, who, even after falling, said “I had a blast!”

It’s the tears streaming down the face of Italian skater Silvia Fontana, as the home crowd gave her a standing ovation following her 22nd-place performance.

And it’s the infectious “Olympic-y” attitude of snowboarding champ Shaun White, who I figure, would be “stoked” even if the medal he had strung around his neck was an old gold AOL freebie disc.

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