August 17, 2016
After a couple of days of miserable weather (cold and a bit showery) and some setbacks with results, we have now started to pick up some momentum and medals (and the weather has picked up again). The medals at these Games are indeed particularly heavy, and quite large – not something to just carry around in your pocket. As well, they come with a lovely wooden presentation box for display.
Our Rugby 7s Teams (Mens and Womens) came here with quite major expectations and both were considered likely to win Medals. The Womens’ Team got through to the play off for Gold/Silver, but came up against a very strong Australian team and were beaten in the final. They won Silver Medals but given what the expectations were, they all felt as though they had failed, so there was quite a bit of emotion and despair for a while.
On the other hand, the Mens’ Team struggled in the pool games, being beaten by Japan in their first game (also suffering two quite major tournament-ending injuries in that game – such as Sony-Bill Williams tearing an archilles tendon early in the game) and they did not progress into the medal play-offs. For them this was a major set-back, and so there was a lot of anguish about the result. and the mood of the team was very sombre afterwards and continued through.
The Equestrian Eventing Team also suffered a major disappointment, going from being clear medal prospects after day-two of the three day competition, to missing out altogether. They had done reasonably well in the dressage phase on day-one, and on day-two (the cross-country) they came on strong and afterwards were sitting in second place in the teams event. Then, on the final day their show jumping let them down quite badly, and it was the great legend Sir Mark Todd who had the worst run, knocking down 4 rails, which dropped the team right out of contention. He was clearly very upset, mainly because he knew he had let the others down. However, they are quite a tight group and once the initial disappointment was over, they rallied around and accepted the situation for what it was – a mix of bad luck and poor execution.
There have been some other set backs as well in the rowing and in the cycling Individual Pursuit race, where Linda Villumsen was a real contender coming into the event. She and I go back quite a way in terms of Games contact and she asked me to join her team in the race-car for the event. That meant getting up very early to head down to where the event was being held near Ipanema Beach, and it was disappointing to come out of our complex at around 5.40am to find that the weather was not good – wind and rain. This made the road surface very slippery so riders had to ride right on the risk line, to go fast but also stay safe.
Linda was second to last rider off and we followed her very closely in the car at quite high speeds. In fact there were times that I worried that if she slid off we might run over her.
The early part of the race was tough (weather and hills) and she lost some time in that phase. However, she picked things up and rode very strongly in the latter stages, but not enough to overcome the slow start. She rode quite well, but came in 6th. It was a privilege to be part of her efforts and to see just how tough such as race can be. She was clearly disappointed, but also philosophical about things. As the mechanic at the end of it all said – “Well… nobody died…….” – and whilst rather self-evident, it certainly helped provide perspective.
After such setbacks it was great that Luka Jones picked up a Silver Medal in the white water canoe slalom event. Luka is at her third Olympics (Beijing, London, Rio) and she is a big Team contributor and a delight to have around. She put together some good runs in her heat and a really good one in the Finals. Some other contenders folded a bit under the pressure and this enabled her to come through – another sign that the Olympics can create immense pressure that especially the favourites have to deal with. Our Men’s rowing pair (Hamish Bond and Eric Murray) continued their dominance in their event – they haven’t been beaten in 7 years – and after dominating their race they won Gold for the second Games in a row. We picked up another Silver medal in the rowing (womens’ pairs) and then Mahe Drysdale (single sculler) had the most amazing race where he seemed to be pipped at the post by his main rival from Chekoslovakia. Whilst they both had identical times on the clock, it turned out that Mahe had actually won the race by about a thousandth of a second!
Then we saw the biggest shock of all when shot putter Valerie Adams was beaten for the Gold medal by a US thrower. Valerie was expected to win her 3rd consecutive Olympic Gold Medal quite easily, but the American girl threw a great final throw that beat Valerie’s best and pushed her into second place. It was a big surprise because it was by far the US thrower’s personal best, and the late timing of that throw in the competition meant that Valerie was unable to regain a platform to put together a better distance. I was so taking for granted her win that I looked to have an early night (much needed at the time) and only found out what happened when I checked things next morning.
All of these circumstances shows that the pressure at the Olympics can be a bonus or a burden. Often it is those with greatest expectations who struggle to perform. The challenge is to have mind and body aligned together to function in the moment to respond to the ongoing challenges of the sport when competing. Whilst at this level the body is usually very well prepared in terms of strength, conditioning and skills, the importance and uncertainty of the results here can lead to the mind becoming focussed ahead of the immediate moment onto the future outcomes (with expectations typically centering around that), and the mind and the body become misaligned. This lack of alignment means that the skill response is interrupted and the accompanying anxiety about outcomes/results can trip a survival instinct within us that leads to a flight, fight or freeze response. At the very least this leads to mind/body tension (particularly around breathing – hence the descriptive term ‘choking’) and performance is greatly undermined. Easy enough to describe, but very difficult to prevent and deal with when it gets activated. In many ways this is the biggest single challenge at pinnacle performance occasions like the Olympics, and one that needs targeted attention.
In less dramatic ways in terms of delivery, the same thing applies to all of us in this environment as we seek to channel our efforts into our performance as well. A couple of the challenges are to manage such things as diet and sleep here. In terms of diet, the fact that the dining room is open all hours and there is a great array of mains, salads, fruit, deserts, ice creams, pizzas (and there is a McDonalds in the International Zone – where there is a bank, post office, general store, ticketing office, photography shop, and Games souvenir shop – with the McDonalds being free for accredited athletes and support staff) means that keeping food intake in check is a real problem. The athletes seem to manage it quite well until after they have performed and then they tend to gorge on things for a while. In terms of sleep, it takes real discipline to get an early night, because there are many people around to talk to, sport to watch on TV, things happening, and once you get tired it is too easy to just sit around in a bit of a stupor.
Recent days have been a bit tough as tiredness creeps in and it seems like things will never end (we are not yet in the middle of the Games) and so it feels a bit like ground-hog day (an interesting expression!). It remains a privilege to be here, but it can be quite challenging to keep on keeping on at times. My recollection is, though, that once the end is in sight, it all races along very quickly, and that will not be long in coming. In the meantime we will see what unfolds in the sporting arena and in the multitude of other places associated with that focus.