A Gold Medal is not the End, but just the beginning

By: Charles Lee

The Olympic Games are more sensational than the Stanley Cup, more exciting than the Super Bowl and more riveting than the World Series. The athletes are not paid the superstar salaries of professional hockey, football and baseball players and we expect so much more from Olympic athletes. We expect grace under pressure, success in the face of defeat and, above all else, continual excellence. Every 2 years citizens of the world are glued to their TVs watching the speed skaters get swifter, the pole vaulters get higher and the weight lifters get stronger. Olympians strive to continually improve, and figure skater Yuna Kim is disappointing because she has not lived up to this ideal.

Kim not only won the gold medal, but also set world records at this year’s Vancouver Olympics. She has had a singular career even though she is only 20, with unprecedented wins at the World championships, the Four Continents Championships, the Grand Prix Final and the Olympics in one year alone. One of the most remarkable aspects of  her career is that she has never missed the podium, from her first day as a junior at the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix to the present – that is, her worst showing has been a  bronze finish.

Twenty- two years earlier, Brian Orser dreamed of gold. Canada had already failed to attain a gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. If he won, he would become the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil, but it wasn’t just about getting a gold medal, as Orser had already won the world championships that year. It was about becoming a milestone in Canadian history, making Canadians proud, and becoming the best in the world. With every eye in Canada watching him, his shoulders were weighted with pressure. His performance was astonishing, but an Olympic gold medal required more than the ability to resist the pressure. He stepped out of a triple flip twice during his long program and  ultimately lost the so-called Battle of the Brians to Brian Boitano by the narrowest of margins — one-tenth of one point on one judge’s tie-breaker mark.

Kim fulfilled both her and Orser’s dream when she won the Gold medal in Vancouver, with the effort, dedication, and perseverance required to become an Olympic champion. The most crucial ingredient in the mix was, however, her coach, Brian Orser. He had the right mix of experience and knowledge to guide Kim onto the Gold medal stage. Together with choreographer David Wilson, Orser enabled Kim to produce electrifying performances at the Olympics and to fulfill the hopes of two nations.

So why did this dream team break up during the summer after the Olympics? The answer has been clouded by a series of he said-she said interviews, but it appears that Kim was unimpressed with the Olympics stating, “It wasn’t really that special. Really, it was like any other competition. It was very comfortable.” Now it seems that she has turned her back on competition in favor of performances in ice shows. She moved to Los Angeles and has hired a new coach, Peter Oppegard. Her move from the Toronto Cricket Club to the Eastwest Ice Palace which is owned by Michelle Kwan, retired Olympian who is now Ice Capades star, signals her shift in focus from competitive to exhibition skating. Kim has also expressed a desire to scale back her competition schedule, commenting, “I have achieved everything I wanted so I want to relax now.”

But is this what we want in Olympians: someone who quits when she has so much potential?

Or do we expect something greater from Olympians? The image of an Olympian is closer to that of Michael Phelps, Evgeni Plushenko and Lindsey Vonn.

Phelps didn’t start out a swimming dynamo; in fact, 5th was his best showing at the 2000 Olympics, but Phelps persevered. With 6 gold medals at Athens and then 8 gold medals at Beijing, not only does Michael Phelps hold the record for the most gold medals won in a single Olympics, but he is also doing better every time. Over 8 days, from August 10th, to August 17th, 2008, in 8 events which he has participated, he broke 7 world records. With another Olympics to go in his career, Michael Phelps will maintain his record for at least another decade.

Evgeni Plushenko has held the podium for an impressive three Olympics, winning silver in 2002, gold in 2006 and silver this year in Vancouver.  Driven to compete, Plushenko plans on participating in the 2014 Olympics, even though he is now 33 and considered ancient for competitive figure skating. Plushenko’s longevity has surpassed his peers and now he is pushing to exceed his limits and wow the audience once again.

Lindsey Vonn’s determination is simply mind-blowing. Norway Alpine skier Aksel Syindal describes Alpine skiing as “sports that sometimes no one makes it to the finish line without a tumble.” Lindsey has already broken her neck twice during her career. When she seriously injured her shin during her race at Alpine World Ski Championships, she cried out, describing it as “excruciatingly painful.” Yet even this can’t stop her. With her determined quest for five Alpine skiing medals, Lindsey Vonn once again is ready to melt some snow. The endless desire to improve is what the Olympics are all about.

These three Olympians epitomize the Olympics motto: swifter, higher, stronger. Notice the comparative, and not the superlative, this indicates that there can always be improvement. The Olympians are constantly striving to perform better. The audience encourages and applauds these athletes, and receives entertainment and inspiration in return. So it is disappointing when Olympians don’t live up to our expectations.

Kim has disappointed Orser and her fans by her retreat from competition. She wowed the world with her sensational performance and the audience’s expectations of her were lofty. However, because Kim has shifted her focus from competition to ice shows, there is a concern that she will lose her edge. If she does not advance her techniques, she will become stagnate and her performance will suffer, ultimately boring the audience and disappointing herself. Orser wanted more from his protégé, commenting, “If she wants to raise her score, she needs a triple axel. Though she is an Olympic champion now, she has room for further improvement.”  This is the difference between the Olympic champion who rests on his or her laurels believing that good enough is good enough, and the underdog who fights for every point, displaying grit and heart to be their best at every competition. Who do you want to watch, and who do you root for? I want to watch the underdog fight and ultimately defeat the prima donna, because we all see ourselves as  underdogs trying to get ahead in our daily lives, and this story inspires us more than the natural talent for whom everything comes easily.

Athletes are inspirational figures who plant the seeds of hope in everyday lives. The odds of winning Olympic medals are very slim, but athletes still work every day for years in the hope of attaining these holy grails. They often state that all their hard work pays off after winning a medal.  Knowing the amount of work and time it takes to achieve Olympic gold helps other people persevere with their own personal goals.  When athletes no longer inspire us to make our own lives better, we no longer care either. However, when an athlete like Michael Phelps, Evgeni Plushenko, or Lindsey Vonn push through and attain their dreams we too are inspired to dig down and work to our fullest potential. This is why Kim’s retreat is so disappointing. “For a lot of athletes after winning the Olympic Gold Medal it’s the end of everything, it’s the pinnacle. But I think it’s the beginning,” commented Brian Orser.

I watched Yuna Kim practicing at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club during the fall of 2009 and witnessed the magic that everyone speaks about, but I think we will never actually see her potential come alive. She has turned her back on the Olympics to become the next Ice Capades star. What a waste. An athlete of her potential should cultivate it to see how far she can propel the world of figure skating.

Rebecca Yu, a grade 11 student at North Toronto C.I., said, “As long as I can see her skating, I don’t care where she does it,” and this seems to be the mindset of many other NT students, but I disagree. The purpose of athletic competitions like the Olympics is to see humanity at its highest, continually striving to become swifter, higher, stronger.