At the start of this article I want to make it clear that I am not a supporter, in any way, of giving children or participants at any level, a trophy for participation.
Having said that, the idea that the only people who are champions are the few who win a gold medal, or finish first, is shortsighted and foolish. This was illustrated in two separate ways in the first two days of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
First, if you managed to stay awake for a reasonable amount of the exceedingly boring opening ceremony, you could not help but notice the wide variety of countries that are competing in the Olympics. Most of the athletes from these countries have no chance to win a medal at the games.
However, each of them is a champion. Being at the Olympics means that they are one of the top athletes in their sport in their country. For them, the fact that they earned the opportunity to participate in the Olympics is their personal gold medal. It represents their reward for all of the time, effort and discipline required to become one of the best in their sport in the world.
If you paid attention as the athletes from some of the lesser-known countries marched into the stadium on Friday night, you could see their joy and sense of accomplishment at being in the parade of athletes. For them, those moments entering the stadium were the culmination of all of the practices and other sacrifices they had made to get to the Olympics. For many, that parade will be one of the most memorable highlights of their lives.
The second illustration was the women’s individual medley swimming event. On Friday afternoon, Maya Diraldo won the preliminaries of the women’s 400M Individual Medley. In doing so, she swam the fasted race of her career. In the final on Friday evening, through three laps she was on a pace just short of the world record that was in place at the beginning of the race. Her evening time of 4:31.15 was better than her time in the afternoon heat by almost two seconds. It was the best time of her career before Friday by nearly three seconds.
However, despite the best time of her career, Maya finished second by nearly five seconds. The race was won by Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu who shattered the World and Olympic records on her way to winning the gold medal. Hosszu captured gold with a time of 4:26.36, shaving more than two seconds off the previous record.
Maya Diraldo finished second and won the silver medal. She did not win the gold in an event that has traditionally been won by an American.
Does this mean she is not a champion? I would emphatically answer no. Maya swam the fastest race she had ever done in that event, among the fastest in the history of the sport. She did her best in the most important race of her career. She should be proud of her performance and she is as much of a champion as Hosszu.
Fortunately, in the post-race interviews, Diraldo reflected this perspective. She knew she had done her best, and she was exceptionally proud and excited about winning her silver medal.
Somewhere between “Winning is the only thing” and participation trophies is a place where there can be balance between recognizing personal accomplishment versus rewarding people for showing up and participating with minimal effort.
I was fortunate to be a good athlete growing up. I was very competitive, often too competitive, and participated in a variety of sports. I wanted to win and often did. But over time I learned that whether or not my team or me individually won or lost was really not the issue.
The real issue is whether or not I gave my best effort. Did I prepare the best I could? Did I practice enough? Did I eat right before the game? Did I prepare myself mentally? Did I stay focused?
These lessons have paid dividends many times over in the almost forty years since I last participated in a formal league event.
The fact is that we control our effort, not the result. Every person who does their best is a champion. Every time we do something better this time than we did the last time, we are a champion.
The key to success in all phases of life is to give our best. As we journey through the pathways of life, we are confronted by an ever-changing panorama of obstacles and challenges. Our success, or lack of it, is measured by our response to the day-to-day vicissitudes of life.
For most of us, the measuring points of success in our lives are private. They generally are seen by a few people and often only ourselves. But the fact that these measuring posts are private makes them no less important.
To illustrate, I contend that the Olympian who walked into the Rio stadium Friday night knowing they had no chance at a medal, much less a gold medal, is as much of a champion as Katinka Hosszu who won the gold medal by five seconds over Maya Diraldo.
And each of us, when we reach a personal measuring point after having done out best, is just as much a champion as Hosszu is, Diraldo is, or any of the Olympians in Rio.