What I Learned From The Olympics

I love the Olympics. Even if I’m not a sports fan, I enjoy watching the 5 continents coming together at one place to compete against each other. Out of the 41 events, my favourites lean towards more “artistic” disciplines such as artistic and rhythmic gymnastics, diving, synchronised swimming, and athletics. As I watched the athletes in action, I am inspired and reminded of what it takes to be an athlete. While the athletes push their limits and forge even better personal times and records, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned that can be applied to us mere mortals.

1. Discipline is key.

Synchronised swimming is definitely a challenging event in the Olympics. It is like a mix of ballet and gymnastics while in water. As I was watching the preliminaries, the commentator mentioned that the sport requires the endurance of a long-distance runner, the strength of a swimmer, the flexibility of a gymnast and the gracefulness of a ballerina. Whew! That’s four sports in one!

Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina of Russian Federation in the Duets Free Routine Preliminary Round of Synchronised Swimming in Rio 2016. Picture from Rio 2016, Getty Images — Al Bello.

How do they achieve it? Hard work, of course. But hard work comes with discipline. The discipline to be on time for routines, to keep the body in shape via diet and exercise, and to keep pressing on even when they miss a beat. There is quite an amount of self-control that they have to exercise in order to be at the top of their game and they don’t take their time for granted.

What about us here? Too often we let ourselves be governed by our emotions and our moods, contented to live life as it is. I’m a victim of my own ill-discipline as well, such as putting off completing my writing drafts for as long as possible, just because I feel like I don’t have enough time (then proceeding to watch 3o trailers on YouTube). When I revisit those drafts later in life, I had to think hard to remember what I wanted to say. Sad days.

Not only that, discipline is the one that will sustain us when we don’t see fruits of our labour immediately. In this age of instant gratification, discipline sounds like a schmuck that everyone wants to avoid. But as they say, wax on, wax off. If we want to see ourselves achieving something, the discipline to get your butt off pity-city every day (especially during a failure or a no-end-in-sight) is a must.

2. You are only as crazy as you let yourself be.

One of the athletics events that got my attention this year was the women’s heptathlon. Heptathlon, meaning 7 (hepta) includes 3 running events (100m hurdles, 200m and 800m), 2 throw events (javelin and shot put) and 2 jump events (high jump and long jump).

Great Britian’s Jessica Ennis-Hill doing a long jump in the Women’s Heptathlon. Picture from Daily Mail, Getty Images.

Which person in their right frame of mind would allow themselves to join such a challenging sport? But there are people who believe that they can do it, and they push themselves to prove to themselves and the world that they can.

Sometimes you just got to believe in your crazy, even if your rational self might scream protest. When you achieve the impossible, that’s when success is all the sweeter. All because of the risk you took. Think about all the success stories in the world that came because these people allowed themselves to be crazy. If not for them, we will not have the iPod, the airplane and the peanut butter.

3. You don’t have to have it all in order to succeed.

India had joined the Olympics for a long time but it was only this year in Rio that they had their first female artistic gymnast, Dipa Karmakar. Being the first in the country would mean not having the most updated equipment or the best training, and this was the case for Karmakar.

Dipa Karmakar during the Women’s Vault. Picture from Indian Express.

But did she let herself be defeated by it? Not even a slightest chance. Karmakar got 4th place in the finals of the women’s vault, just missing the bronze if not for Simone Biles’s gold. Two keywords here: Finals and 4th place. Imagine if she had the latest equipment and strong training, where will she rank?

There are times when we think that we will be able to do this and that, if we had this and that. Having certain things may help but in the end, it is really up to you. I took up photography recently and the advice I keep getting is: it’s not the equipment, it’s you. While a good camera is helpful, knowing how to frame the composition is what makes the photographer good or interesting. Some people invest in lots of gear and still take bad pictures; some people just use their phones all the time and the results are beautiful.

4. Keep inspiring others.

In swimming, Michael Phelps is undoubtedly the greatest. But he was defeated by this kid from Singapore, Joseph Schooling in one of his strongest events, the 100m butterfly. What is even more inspiring is that Schooling idolised Phelps all his swimming life. To inspire a fan to reach for the gold himself is definitely a legacy that Phelps can proudly leave behind.

Michael Phelps congratulating his fan that beat him, Joseph Schooling during the victor’s ceremony. Picture from Today Online.
“I’m not happy, obviously, nobody likes to lose,” [Phelps] said. “But I’m proud of Joe.” He was in a reflective mood. “I wanted to change the sport of swimming,” he said. “With the people we have in the sport now I think you are seeing it.” He explained he wanted to teach kids “to believe in themselves, to not be afraid to know that the sky is the limit.” And that’s exactly what he has done.
Michael Phelps taught a lesson for once — by Singapore’s Joseph Schooling https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/13/michael-phelps-taught-a-lesson-for-once-by-singapores-joseph-schooling

In life, we will meet people who inspire us. I remember when I first started planning, my mentor was a guy who was deeply passionate about changing the marketing industry to be one that is more innovative as well as producing more meaningful work. Despite facing obstacles and challenges along the way, he stayed true to that passion. As I lead my own team one day, I aim to inspire them as much as he inspired me.

5. Stay classy and humble.

I think my favourite performance this year was Simone Biles in her individual vault event where she won gold (this was her third gold after the team and individual all-round events). After her jump, she knew that the gold was hers. She was confident but she wasn’t proud. One of my favourite moments after the jump was that she went around and hugged her fellow contestants, even if she completely slayed the competition.

Simone Biles winning the Women’s Vault event with silver medalist Russian Federation’s Maria Paseka (R) and bronze medalist Switzerland’s Guilia Steingruber (L). Picture from Fortune.

The other athlete that was classy throughout his win was Usain Bolt. Even though he won the Men’s 100m three times now, being the first man to have a triple Olympic gold in the event, he was chilled and friendly as ever. Despite the fact that he is the fastest man in the world and the 100m to him is like a walk in the park, he has no airs about him. He doesn’t make fun or disdain his competition but taking time to spend time with them, even stopping an interview midway to congratulate the new world record holder of the Men’s 400m event, Wayde van Niekerk.

Usain Bolt congratulating Wayde Van Niekerk on winning the Men’s 400m finals and breaking the world record. Picture from Daily Mail, AP.

We sometimes think that humility and confidence do not go hand-in-hand, but it does. You can be confident about what you have done well and be humble enough to celebrate other’s efforts and wins. I used to think that athletes like Usain Bolt are celebrated for their wins, but now I see that they are also popular because of their personality and sportsmanship.

The lessons we can learn from the Olympics are more than these points, I’m sure. But I guess the inspiration and the spirit of the game is why, in spite of controversies, the Olympics is still a great game to watch. Now, where was that draft again?

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