At Your Service: August 20, 2008

The Summer Olympics fill the airways and stoke our dreams. Beijing has gone all out to produce a spectacle that is a harbinger of things to come from host country, China. It is a national “coming out party” befitting the most beautiful of debutantes.
The technological advancements that make it easier and easier to determine the winners boggle the mind. The lanes of swimmers present a visual display of the homeland flag and name at the turn of each lap and ultimately, the winners’. Gymnastics scores, which are more subjective and in previous contests took up to 15 minutes to be determined, are calculated and presented visually almost instantly. The very fact that we, in a rural community, can see the events live speaks to the telecommunications advances we have come to take for granted. It is as if we are there. But what it takes to actually be there is a combination of skill, talent and determination that few are willing to achieve.
Three types of people go to the Olympics as representatives of their nation: the athletes, their coaches and the judges. In their own ways, each is a champion and each is vital to the outcome.
The athletes take center stage. They are the raison d’etre of the games – ordinary people who follow their commitment to become extraordinary. Individual performance and teamwork come together to produce astounding results. Years of rigorous training culminate in mere moments of competition and the lucky few stand to receive their medals. There is no question that each competitor is a champion in their own right, whether they win or lose. The heat of the competition in which they engage makes them better than they might ordinarily be, like steel in the fire.
Timing, skill and luck come together in one body to make the ultimate winner a champion among champions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stunning successes of Michael Phelps. He clearly outswam the competition, but he also had a bit of luck on his side. The touchpad (one of those new pieces of technology) recorded his touch first securing his victory and 7th Gold Medal; in another time, the eyes would have given the victory to Cavic. His performance was further supported and medals dependent upon the performance of the rest of his team. Three of his eight gold medals were for team events.
No one makes it to the heights of competition without an excellent coach. We can never see our own performance. From the perspective of gymnastics, we cannot see that our toe is not pointed perfectly, thereby reducing our score. Someone with a trained eye must tell us what is missing. This trained eye must be accompanied with the ability to relate to the athlete or team and communicate in a way that bridges the gap between great and extraordinary. It calls for the ability to do what must be done to generate constant improvement in someone else’s performance. The relationships on display between Nastia Liuken and her father/coach and Shawn Johnson and Liang Chow made clear the power of the role. In the making of championship athletes, it is the coach who equally celebrates the win.
With today’s technology in the forefront, we no longer see much of the judges, but they are equally important to the outcome. They must determine what is perfect and what is not. Judges are required to know every aspect of the technical skills it takes to execute a move in their sport and be able to make the smallest of distinctions in the midst of performance. They must see what everyone else misses and translate that into a numerical score within seconds. Theirs is the decision that determines who is the winner. It is a role that stirs up controversy every time and each new Olympics arrives with changes to the scoring targeted at the remediation of those problems. The judge who sits for their country in Olympic competition is a champion for their sport.
The Olympics is one of those occasions to see in action both those who are champions by virtue of their actions and those who champion someone or something else by virtue of their acts. It is an important part of what makes these events so inspirational. It reminds us of the value and discipline it takes to achieve personal excellence. Even more, it reminds us that we cannot do that alone. To be our best we must have both those who spur us on and those who tell us how we did. The hope of the Games calls us to be champions in our own ways and reminds us that we can be.