What makes an Olympian?

27 02 2010

For decades – perhaps I can even be so bold as to say centuries – Olympians have been regarded as the cream of the crop.  Not just the best athletes the world has to offer, but mentors to our kids and heroes to our nations.  We expect them to be model citizens.  And many are fine examples of the type of people we should aspire to become – strong, honest and respectful.  But for every Dan Jansen there is a Michael Phelps, for every Joannie Rochette there is a Ben Johnson, for the Robel Teklemariams of the Olympics there is a Marie-Philip Poulin, for every Jackie Joyner there is a Stella Walsh – you get my point.  And for as much negativity as we cast on these less than admirable athletes, are they really at fault?  Or are we the fans to blame for holding them at such a high standard, unattainable by mortal man, and then damning them for being human?

Beating world records and winning multiple gold medals at the Olympics by 23 years old, Michael Phelps was caught on camera using a bong and had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.  Yet the CDC reports that 8% of the population over 12 years of age uses marijuana at least once and 10% of US drivers are impaired by alcohol.  He isn’t unique in his crimes, yet because of the ideal standard he was held to as an athlete, he was barred from competitions and lost several commercial contracts.  The Olympic Committee itself has no regulations in writing as to the type of citizen an athlete must adhere to being outside of the competition at the Olympics.

Ben Johnson shattered records with his speed, winning Olympic medals and world competitions only to later test positive for taking a synthetic testosterone steroid – a violation of Olympic regulations.  And yet, for decades prior, coaches encouraged and prescribed such drug use for Olympic athletes, and the action was condoned by the Olympics.  His medals were stripped from him and awarded to his most vocal opponent and the second runner up, Carl Lewis.  Yet in 2003 it was revealed by the US Olympic Committee that Carl had also tested positive for steroid use and had been admitted into the Olympic competitions anyhow.
Marie-Philip Poulin is an eighteen year old Canadian Hockey player who celebrated her team’s gold medal with beer and champagne guzzling, yet she is not the legal age, even in Canada to drink.  Here again though the legal age for her country is 19, which she is less than a month away from.  Furthermore youth experiment with alcohol for far less momentous reasons than winning a gold Olympic medal for their country every day – is this really worthy of the pending investigation by the IOC?  Who imposed the standard that athletes shall never break the law, never celebrate their winnings or let loose?

Stella Walsh offers a little comedic relief.  She was America’s female athlete, except she was not a US Citizen.  She eventually had to join the Polish Olympic team and won multiple gold medals, setting world records, some of which have yet to be broken.  Yet certainly a woman couldn’t compete as well as she and Stella was forced to submit to genital examination to prove to the 1920’s Olympic Committee that she was a female.  However, in 1980 she was shot during a robbery and after an autopsy it was found that she actually had male genitalia and was one of the rare people who are born with both XX and XY chromosomes.  There is still debate as to whether or not to posthumously strip her of her records and medals.

For each of the potentially non-deserving though, we look at Joannie Rochette and Dan Jansen – each taking to the ice after the unexpected death of their loved one, bringing us to our feet and tears to our eyes as we watch them perform for the world and under the microscope all the while struggling to control the emotional pain of their loss.  For athletes like these, we want to give them more, gold could not be enough to reward them for their courage in the darkest hour and it is heart-wrenching when they walk away from their triumph with less than gold.

We look at Robel Teklemariam who is the only athlete for the whole of Ethiopia.  There is no snow in Ethiopia, he practises on roller skis on the streets of his home town; there is no Winter Olympic Committee in Ethiopia; there’s not even an Ethiopian word for ski.  Robel has single-handedly created the committee, worked on his qualifications and fund raising and is the first Ethiopian athlete to ever compete in the winter games for Ethiopia.  When most athletes would have simply turned away or sought another country to accept them as an athlete, this man decided to instead forge a road where one did not exist and open the door to others from his country to follow in his footsteps in the future or serve as their mentor to encourage them to make their own path as he has.  As the Olympic Creed reads, 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. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. No one has struggled and fought as well as Robel!

And then there is America’s Jackie Joyner, earning silver in her first Olympic competition, later also won bronze and gold medals, forging new records that have yet to be broken.  She completes a family of record breaking athletes such as Al Joyner and Florence Griffith.  She holds the title of Greatest Female Athlete of All Time and her determination to serve as a role model for young girls and is a founder of the Athletes for Hope and the Joyner-Kersee foundation – both which put the focus on mediating and helping the families in need.  She was born to teenage parents in a poor area of East St. Louis during the 1960s, not the best of times for African Americans in the US.  But she focused on her goals and despite her asthma and medical problems, she succeeded, paving a road of encouragement to young girls everywhere.

Perhaps instead of applying taboos and damnations to the athletes who are human, we should hold in higher esteem those who succeed where others fail, those who prove they can and appreciate their wins, whether they medal or not.



8 responses

28 04 2010


China was stripped of a team all-around bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics on Wednesday because it fielded an underage gymnast. Dong Fangxiao was discovered to be 14 at the time of those Games, two years younger than the minimum age requirement.
The medal will be given to the United States team which finished fourth in Sydney. The IOC has asked for China to return the medals “as soon as possible” so they can be reallocated to the U.S. team.
The action comes 20 months after China was accused of doctoring the ages of at least two of its gymnasts at the Beijing Games. Those allegations became a focal point of the 2008 Games but were quickly hushed up by the IOC after it cleared China following a sham investigation which basically consisted of the Olympic governing body asking China if they were really, really sure that the gymnasts were of age. When China said “yes” and produced passports and ID cards, the IOC dropped the matter, seemingly content to let the controversy pass and not risk offending its Olympic hosts.
Forget the fact that media reports and security experts found Chinese government documents which said 2008 team member He Kexin was 14 years old and not 16. Forget that asking China to produce documents proving its innocence would be like replacing drug tests with a simple questionaire in which athletes are asked whether they’ve ever doped or not. And, now, expect the IOC to forget that Dong had proper documentation at one point too, documentation which was clearly forged.
Dong was caught because somebody slipped up and printed a different birthdate on her credentials for Beijing. Instead of being born in on Jan. 20, 1983, as was claimed in Sydney, Dong’s listed birthdate was Jan. 23, 1986. On her blog she says she was born in the Year of the Ox, which would fit with the Jan. 1986 birthday.
The International Gymnastics Federation looked into the allegations following the controversy in Beijing and recommended to the IOC that China be stripped of its medal from 2000 because of Dong’s participation. The organization did so Wednesday at a board meeting in Dubai.
This action only happened because the evidence was so overwhelming that the IOC had to act. They didn’t seek out the truth, it was thrust upon them. As the organization showed in Beijing, if it had its druthers, it would have swept this under the rug long ago.
Just because China cheated in 2000 doesn’t necessarily mean those gymnasts were under 16 in Beijing. It does, however, lead to a lot more questions and should reopen the inquiry. Knowing the IOC, don’t hold your breath.

26 10 2010
Andreas Calisto Ungvarsky938

Why have you deleted my post? It was very helpful information and i promise atleast one person found it helpful unlike the rest of the comments on this site.

16 11 2010

Wow a lot of complaints about having posts removed, I’m telling you, that spam filter catches so many crappy posts – it’s obviously worth its weight in gold.

30 10 2010

Good info

3 11 2010
Anibal Ruff Pettner5259

I could truthfully be here all day.

3 11 2010
Malinda Fruth

Why have you deleted my post? It was very useful information and i guarantee atleast one person found it helpful unlike the rest of the comments on this site.

16 11 2010

I don’t delete any posts, but the spam filter blocks a lot of the crappy ones.

23 11 2010
Gaston Rozga

Commend you

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