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‘My heart was totally broken’: The agony of the Olympics and how we measure athlete success

By George Ramsay, CNN

After years of dominance that equated to a glut of 20 medals across the past three Olympic Games, Great Britain’s rowers reached choppy waters in Tokyo.

They leave these Games with two rowing medals — silver in the men’s quadruple sculls and bronze in the men’s eight — and, agonizingly, six fourth-place finishes.

“Fourth is just an awful place to come,” said Graeme Thomas after missing out on third by three seconds in the men’s double earlier this week.

The results pages will likely make grim reading for the British rowing team. But amid the disappointing results, some of the athletes, namely Helen Glover and Polly Swann, have found perspective.

Glover, a two-time gold medalist from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, returned to rowing earlier this year having become a mother of three since her last Games, while Swann has been working as a doctor at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. They finished fourth in the women’s pair on Thursday.

“For Helen, she was looking after three kids. For me, I was working in a hospital a year ago today,” said Swann. “I don’t think there’s many people in the Olympic athlete setup that can say these things and be in a final.”

Olympians are so often defined by medal counts that our perception of success can be easily clouded — an argument Cath Bishop, a former British rower and author of “The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed,” has propounded.

Bishop remembers the moment she and Katherine Grainger finished second in the coxless pair at the 2004 Olympics; at the time, commentators observed that they were “only in silver.”

“I left thinking: have I failed at the last hurdle?” Bishop told CNN Sport.

“I always feel that everything is defined by the split second of crossing the line, when the story of my career is about all of the things I went through beyond that, before that, the things that I actually carry with me.

“I don’t carry the medal around, I carry the experiences I had … the expectations and the definitions that we give to what the medal means, and, in fact, what fourth place means, or sixth place means — that’s what determines what we take with us.”

For many athletes, the Olympics are viewed as the pinnacle of sporting achievement, and many will judge themselves against the number next to their name once the competition is over.

But Bishop has argued for a “broadening of success criteria.”

“The purpose of sport isn’t just about medals. It’s about connecting communities; it’s about exploring human, physical, and mental boundaries,” she said. “And we need to get back to that.”

The ‘privilege’ of perfecting a craft

Another Olympian who has mulled the concept of success is former American cyclist Mara Abbott.

On the opening weekend of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Abbott led the women’s road race with 100 meters to go and the finish line in sight. At that point, she was caught by a chasing group of three riders and finished the race without a medal.

As fourth-place finishes go, this seemed particularly brutal. Yet Abbott, her body and mind emptied of all energy reserves, found perspective and gratitude after crossing the line in Rio.

“My heart was totally broken that night, but at the same time, that was everything I had mentally, physically, emotionally; those four hours were living everything that I was possibly capable of, and everything that I had worked towards,” she told CNN Sport last year.

“It didn’t work out, and that was heartbreaking, but it is so rare to have all the experiences of your life culminate in a single moment. And it is so rare to have the privilege of working to perfect a craft and to see how good you can become at something.”

The Rio Olympics was Abbott’s last race as a professional cyclist having always planned to retire after the Games. That, in turn, shaped her outlook on her Olympic experience.

“Even when I was sitting there talking to my coach at the race, part of the heartbreak was realizing that I would never probably in my life ever have the opportunity to feel that vast experience of emotion and accomplishment again,” she added.

“I felt like I got everything I needed out of the sport. It was really sad, but I felt a sense of closure. I felt that I got in the learning and I’ve gotten the experience that I wanted.”

Re-framing success

During the London 2012 Olympics, a UK bookshop owner decided to hand out specially-designed medals to athletes who finished fourth at the Games. David Mitchell told the BBC that he started the project to compensate for “an increase in competitiveness and higher standards” at the Olympics.

How an athlete processes their performance of course depends on their own standards and expectations; the same finishing position could be despair for one and joy for another.

“I feel a little bit dead inside and it’s killing me,” British taekwondo athlete Bianca Walkden said after winning her second Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo. “It’s a medal, just not the color I wanted. I might paint it over when I get home, no one has to know.”

According to Bishop, the conflation of success with the color of an Olympic medal is partly driven by the media and the language that surrounds the Games — as evidenced during her own silver-medal-winning race — and partly by the value governments confer on medal-winning athletes.

Indeed, the irony that her own medal has given her a platform to challenge perceptions of sporting success doesn’t escape her.

“I’m obviously not against trying to do your best and trying to deliver your best performance,” she said. “I have nothing against that, it’s a great human pursuit. But to do that in isolation is where it becomes less fulfilling.”

The Tokyo Olympics — which have so far seen gymnast Simone Biles withdraw from events to protect her mental health and tennis player Naomi Osaka speak of the pressure of performing in front of a home crowd — perhaps provide an opportunity to re-frame the concept of success.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 23 gold medals, has described experiencing “a major state of depression” after each Olympics. Today, Phelps is a passionate advocate for mental health awareness.

“Those moments and those feelings and those emotions for me are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal,” Phelps has said of being able to help others by sharing his experience of depression.

That the Olympics are ongoing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic may also allow athletes to view their performances in a new light.

“I think in many ways, athletes are grateful that they have the opportunity to race,” Bishop said.

“Gratitude is a great frame of mind to take into a sporting event. It’s a privilege; nobody dies; it’s not a life and death situation. And we’ve seen lots of life and death situations over the last year.”

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