The Heart of the Matter - Lessons From the Base of the Olympic Pyramid
With the PyeongChang 2018 Games around the corner, it's easy to forget the Olympians and Paralympians that you will see are mostly young kids with big dreams and little resources to get there, to the podium. I joined the Board of Directors of USA Luge in August 2014, in an attempt to give back to this Movement which has given me so much - and it was a humbling experience. Here were my thoughts after my first board meeting - the emotions are even stronger today.
Last weekend in beautiful Lake Placid, New York (Host City of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games) I attended my first USA Luge Association Board Meeting as a newly minted volunteer Independent Board Member.
I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work within virtually every level of the Olympic Movement these past 20-plus years. So when offered, I jumped at the chance to work at the National Governing Body (National Federations for my non-USA friends) level of sport, as this is an area in which I have little-to-no experience. I realized quite quickly that this is where I should have started my Olympic journey many years ago.
Here is the most important lesson reinforced from the weekend: the Olympic Movement is a fragile, elegant and eternal dream knitted together by thousands of people who will never see the limelight, whose names will never be mentioned in a press release and who may never even attend a Games. They toil countless hours with very little resources, they will never sit in a T-3 car or complain about “important things” such receiving the desired Games Accreditation or gaining access to the IOC hotel (or lounge).
No, these are the people who constantly wage an exhausting, invisible, seemingly never-ending battle to keep the lights on and train the athletes at the local level.
This is the real Olympic Movement; the one you never see.
The Olympic mantra states that “Athletes are the heart of the Games”; that is correct, they truly are, and forever will be. But it is the organizations and the people working within them at the bottom rung of the Olympic pyramid, at the National Federation level, who represent the Olympic Movement’s soul.
As I sat through a day of meetings focused on the long-term survival of Luge in the United States (remember, Olympic sports in the USA receive no government funding), I was surrounded by no fewer than four Olympic medalists and World Cup champions.
Each of these people was giving their time, energy and yes their hearts and souls to the cause of the sport they loved and that changed their lives. Was there a “prima donna” among them? No. Were they living or relying on past accomplishments or success? No. Was anyone taking credit for anyone else’s work or accomplishments? No.
Was I moved? Yes – beyond words, actually.
Admittedly, my own Olympic experience has been a charmed one and I am very thankful for it. But this past weekend in tiny, humble, yet magnificent Lake Placid did more to open my eyes to the beauty and magnificence of the Olympic ideal than any gold medal finish or Opening or Closing Ceremony I’ve ever witnessed. Why? Because I saw sacrifice, desire, honor, persistence and that grandest English noun of all – hope – manifest right before my eyes.
I have no idea where my volunteer Luge odyssey will end or what it will accomplish, but I can tell you this: working alongside these good, honest people who view their sport through the lens of love instead of personal gain is exactly what I needed to see, hear and feel.
So, the next time you receive that inevitable call or email request to donate a few dollars to grass-roots sports, dig deep my friends, dig very deep; for without a solid financial foundation at its core (and you would be very surprised at how much impact just a few dollars can make), future Olympic podiums will be absent of the young men and women who inspire us with wonder, who make us cry with pride and who challenge us all to be better than we really are.
Good luck to all the Olympians and Paralympians in PyeongChang 2018, and a special prayer of good wishes good luck, and thanks to the USA Luge team.