As the winter Olympics unfold in Canada, I have been thinking about my past experiences at the Summer Games.
The experiences have made my life richer and others’ Olympic performances have inspired me as an athlete. But as I watch the Canadians race for medals in Vancouver, I realize how far the Olympics are from the vision and values of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement. De Coubertin said, “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” The Games aren’t what I had imagined as a child as I now realize they are now to focused on generating money.
Olympians are now a part of a massive industry, which masquerades as something greater, but is virtually no different than professional hockey, basketball or cycling. The main difference is that the athletes aren’t paid for their performances by organizations that make billions from them. Our images are tightly controlled during our participation so we can’t promote personal sponsors for fear they might compete with those endorsing the Games.
Yet, it is still an honor to race with my flag on my back as the essence of sport—to inspire– is still at the heart of any competition. The Olympics provides the largest stage, which gives the honor more weight.
Paralleling the results based values of the current Olympic culture, Canada has been supporting their athletes with a program named, “Own the Podium.” The name of the program is contrary to the Olympic ideals (and on some level very un-Canadian and too self-assured) as ‘owning the podium’ is something completely out of the athletes’ control as it is dependent on thousands of variables which are unknowns until race day.
Result focused programs can be detrimental as they stress athletes who fear failure by making predictions which are out of their control (an athlete can’t control the performances of competitors and therefore has no idea whether or not he/she will win a medal). Being our best is something we can control. If that is our sole focus, the fear of failure is eliminated. Pressure to control the uncontrollable variables also increases the odds that an athlete will cheat.
With millions of dollars to build a winning team, and all of the hype to go with it, the 1996 US Olympic cycling team choked when it counted. They arrived in Atlanta believing they had won. Yet, the meager Canadian team won more medals with a minute budget. (We traveled to the race from our training camp in Arkansas in the back of the Saturn team truck as we lacked vehicles—Steve Bauer, the team captain sat up front with our mechanic Fernando Tapia.) Clara Hughes told me after she won her bronze medal in the time trial that she opted not to wear a radio or be relayed the time checks of her rivals, as she just wanted to go out and simply do her best ride. Her ride was an admirable, inspiring and unforgettable moment.
My Olympic experiences have all been memorable and unique. While digging through my computer I found some photos from those Games. Here are a few of the memories along with some images:
The 1996 Games in Atlanta was my first experience. I was a naïve 20 year old who matured quickly during my first season of elite professional racing. Thankfully, Steve Bauer my teammate coached me through the summer, and the race, relaxing my nerves as I rode for the first time with the stars I had only read about in the glossy cycling magazines. It was Steve’s last race and my first international event. The road race around Buckhead, in central Atlanta, was the first time I had ridden with an 11-tooth cog (thanks to Fernando who loaned me a fancy pair of Team Saturn’s Mavic Cosmic race wheels). I remember looking down at my sprockets each time my chain spun it, thinking, “Holy shit, we must be going fast. I’m in the 11!”
Steve told me when to move up in the bunch and when to follow the attacks. His tactical instincts were acute and after following a few attacks I found myself bridging up to the winning breakaway with the protagonists. Tucked tightly in the draft we made contact with the leaders as they reached the foot of the climb. No longer able to sustain the effort, I was promptly dropped. I looked back—Steve was coming across alone. Sadly, I was completely blown and couldn’t help him. For a few minutes there were two lone Canadians stuck in between the break and the peloton. Steve didn’t make it to the break and we were both absorbed by the peloton. I followed a few more attacks (being away with Abraham Olano for a few kilometers was another great moment for me) and finished in the peloton.
After the awe of being at the Olympics wore off I was slightly disappointed and disheartened. It was far more commercial than I had imagined and inhospitable. To me, there was no sense of community in the chaotic yet tightly monitored village.
However, watching my teammate, Clara Hughes, win two medals was a thrill and inspiration. We had grown up together, had spent months together at training camps and had become close friends. Ending an unparalleled career on a bike and skates, she has just skated in her final Olympics in Vancouver on the oval and won a bronze medal in the 5000 m.
The 2004 Olympics in Athens was wonderful as I was able to share it with my wife, Dede, who is part Greek. We had spent the first years of our marriage training together so it was an extraordinary experience to share with her. In a peak of emotion, she accomplished a dream by winning a medal in the time trial and retired soon afterwards. In the road race, I had fantastic legs until 2 km from the finish. Using everything I had left, I attacked the peloton and was away alone with 5 km to go (ahead of me Bettini and Paulinho were racing for first and second) chasing bronze medal. Axel Merckx bridged across to me and we cooperated until my legs gave out with cramps on the final ascent to the flame rouge. I was caught under the 1 km to go banner by a charging Ullrich who stormed to the finish to set up his teammate Zabel for the sprint. Ugh.
The 2008 Games in Beijing were a cultural experience as the contrasts in wealth were shocking and unsettling. Despite the awkwardness of participating in an event surrounded by ethical question marks, I enjoyed the time with my teammates and felt good throughout the race. Thankfully, this time, my legs seized up after the finish line and I was able to finish in the top ten, five seconds from the front group. A highlight was riding around the city with Jason McCartney on rented city bikes the following day, as documented here in the NYT.