The Secrets of Olympians

Sometime during the past 12 months, I fell in love with PostSecret. PostSecret is a website updated each Sunday with a series of postcards which have been sent to the site that week, each containing the sender’s anonymous secret.

I love the site because it can make you laugh, take pause, and even re-think one’s actions all in the space of a minute or two. Particularly memorable postcards from my time visiting the site include:

  • The postcard with four familiar figures walking across a familiar zebra crossing, with the secret: “On the way to work I try to cycle through groups of tourists crossing Abbey Road right when they’re having their picture taken!”
  • The plain white postcard with a black border, which revealed: “The morning after you hit our 10-year old daughter, we all stood there and watched as a fan asked for your autograph.”
  • And the ever-haunting postcard – which struck me so hard that I didn’t save it, so I’m paraphrasing – from a veterinarian nurse who revealed that while she will always sound understanding if you don’t stay and hold the paw of your dog or cat as she puts it down, she desperately wants you to stay. For all that pets do when their owner leaves the room is look for them, desperate for comfort – an emotion the nurse hates witnessing in the last moments of an animal’s life.

One of the most fascinating secrets of the past 12 months was from an Olympian revealing their greatest secret about their response to the Beijing Games:

So often, we drop in on athletes in the most important moments of their lives without having any concept whatsoever of the journey that came before, let alone the journey that will follow their sporting career. And it feels as if it’s not just sport that’s cruel, but it’s us, the sports-going public, who are equally responsible.

We criticise an athlete for not being happy with a silver medal, while simultaneously rating others as failures for not having won the biggest matches of their lives and thus not fulfilling their potential.

We celebrate some forever for being able to revel in a stroke of luck, and hold others accountable forever for being on the receiving end of one memorable play during their long career.

We criticise tennis players who aren’t within cooee of Federer, despite their top 100 ranking…when if they were ranked equally highly in basketball, they’d be starting in the NBA and earning well over US$1million/year.

And so rarely, it seems, do we ask athletes themselves what result will make their journey worthwhile. What is it that they have set out to achieve? What result are they going to be proud of?

A relative of mine once made the Olympic Final in his chosen event, qualifying by two hundredths of a second. Upon being interviewed after his semi-final, he came out with one of the most beautiful quotes I’ve ever heard: “That’s twice as much as I needed.”

The blokes sitting next to me watching the race that day, who didn’t know me and knew nothing of my relationship to the athlete, laughed and were stoked for him. Clearly, this was a man who had achieved his long-held goal and we as a sporting public are most accepting of the fact that for some athletes, qualifying for the Olympic Final – even qualifying for the Games themselves – can certainly be a person’s greatest achievement.

But what of those people who have higher goals? Why do we criticise the individuals who are disappointed with second place? And why is it reasonable that footballers who miss out on a Premiership and thus shed a tear aren’t criticised in the same manner as individual athletes who also appear shattered at finishing second? Is it because we allow ourselves to hold the belief that those who participate in team sports are disappointed because they couldn’t win a Premierhsip for their team’s long-standing fans, but we feel that individual athletes are only disappointed because they’ve missed out on a selfish, arrogant, purely personal goal?

And why is it that an athlete’s conflicting emotions about missing out on that “one stupid point” becomes a secret that they feel they can only share with the world anonymously? How many others feel the same way, but can’t allow themselves to admit it to family, friends and fans?

There was a second, equally fascinating postcard from Beijing forwarded to Postsecret in the same week:

But the curse of Tom Buchanan, “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax,” is another column altogether.

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6 Responses to The Secrets of Olympians

  1. April says:

    I guess that’s why Olympic medal ceremonies always, always make me teary.

  2. Liz says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Post Secret – now I want to get the books! And I will try to avoid feeling judgemental towards individual athletes for showing disappointment at not coming first. You’re right- we don’t judge team athletes for this in the same way, which isn’t fair at all.

  3. Tiane says:

    i do so love post secret, but i do find that after a while, you realise almost everyone has the same secrets.

    and you can’t take anything dawn fraser says seriously.

  4. Pingback: The secrets of Olympians « The Footy Almanac

  5. Liz says:

    Very thought provoking – bring on the next one!

  6. sal says:

    timely re-reflection. Same applies across other fields I reckon – recognition of what is important to the individual. Can think of many medical examples…

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