Olympic spirit

I love the Olympics. It is a moment when we embrace a really diverse range of sport, celebrate achievement and experience moments that capture our imagination and stay with us for a lifetime. My first memory of the games is a fleeting one of Daley Thompson doing back flips on the pole vault mat in 1988. Many years later ias a student, still inspired by that moment, I got to fulfil a childhood dream by spending a year ‘learning’ how to vault. I put the learning in inverted commas as really I just sprinted down a track with a big stick in my hands and hurled myself over a (not very high) bar looking as graceful as a frog in a blender. Many of my olympic memories are golden moments of triumph and unexpected success. However, the most poignant ones that have stuck with me are tales of adversity, courage and the olympic spirit.

The Olympic Spirit is quite simply that the most important thing 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.” From wildcard entry Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani who only learnt to swim 8 months before the games at Sydney 2000 to Derek Redmond finishing the 400m injured with help from his dad in Barcelona 1992 (I still cannot watch the footage without welling up). These are the stories that make the Games special for me and why the spirit is so important.

However, it is unusual for courageous inspirational stories such as this to come from an Olympic superstar and Simone Biles is a sporting megastar, With no Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt at this Olympic Games she is the star attraction. Seeing her falter in qualifying was surprising, when she pulled out of the final that was stunning but what happened next may well be the most important moment not just in sport but in how we think about mental health. Biles was clearly not feeling ok, she did not believe she could perform at her best and took the brave decision to stand herself down in the final for the benefit of her team mates and her own mental health. She then became the team’s biggest cheerleader supporting her team mates avidly from the sidelines. In that moment Biles made a statement that “it’s ok to not be ok” and that any of us can face those challenges. The outpouring on social media afterwards, not just in terms of support for her, but also tales of how her actions would have positive repercussions for all athletes.

Image: Bryan Keane
(prints available here http://inpho.ie/media/NKMt-91EigIr2pO-toALNg..a)

Let us not forget that Biles was probably set to double the number of gymnastic moves named after her to four at this Olympics. If you do not follow the sport,she was likely going to perform a double, double dismount off the beam. For the uninitiated this means jumping off a 4 inch wide beam and doing a double somersault with a double twist to dismount! Think that is impressive then consider the triple double she has trademarked on the floor as she somehow generates enough power and elevation off the mat to complete a double somersault in a perfect tuck with three twists.

It is a superhuman, breathtaking piece of athleticism. She may well be the greatest female athlete of all time and has inspired countless numbers of children to head to their local gym to learn gymnastics. She is a colossus but with her honesty, bravery and openness she has perhaps accomplished something even more important. No matter who you are, what you have achieved and what you are embarking on or involved in you may face mental health challenges and in those moments it is ok to stop and reach out for help. I was full of admiration for her before these games but that is nothing compared to how in awe I am of her now.

I’ll finish this week’s blog with the Derek Redmond clip. It is a tragically sad moment for an athlete who was denied the opportunity to race in an Olympic final but will live on in my memory for that resolute determination to finish the race. I challenge you not to shed a tear… #ImNotTired

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