Despite the rising rhetoric to the contrary, the 31st modern Olympics in Rio was truly an extraordinary fortnight. We saw Michael Johnson’s long-standing 400m record being broken, a ‘triple triple,’ a ‘double double,’ and of course American swimmer Michael Phelps taking home his 23rd gold medal (his 28th in total).
But what was more interesting was the fact that a whole ream of human stories actually took equal billing with these fantastical tales of personal achievement – both in the press and on social media. All of a sudden, the public wanted to celebrate an athlete’s journey just as much as a medal, and were just as keen to pay homage to overcoming prejudice as a world record.
But this isn’t just a feeling; it’s backed up by facts. For example, in the period of August 1-11, three of the top five most-shared Olympic-related stories on Facebook were human-interest stories. Yusra Mardini and her fellow refugee athletes were a perfect example of the power of sport to give hope even in the bleakest of circumstances, and one that the general public responded to from the opening ceremony to Nintendo game character Mario collecting the torch on behalf of Japan 2020.
The momentum continued just the very next day with the world witnessing the Olympics’ first ever live marriage proposal, as volunteer Isadora Cerullo proposed to her girlfriend Marjorie Enya. Yes, you read that right, her girlfriend. It shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age but unfortunately it still is. Anyway, this was probably the central act that made Rio 2016 such a fantastically progressive event.
There are lots of reasons for this shift away from pure achievement towards wider more human stories. Online and print newspapers, for example, can no longer rely on building a story purely around reporting what happened. Thanks to social media, we’re able to see results and talk about them in real-time, and even if we miss something live, we can all see the action on catch-up or on-demand.
Social media also has another role to play in shaping the modern world’s relationship with sport. Now, for the first time ever, we get to see behind the scenes through the athletes’ eyes. We read their thoughts, we see their photos, we watch them celebrate. We also see that, to be honest, they’re not that different from us. Sure, they have extraordinary physical and mental ability, but they have just the same emotions and needs as us, and when you realise that, they become that much easier to relate to than your average footballer.
What all this amounts to though is a change in our collective approach to sport generally. As long as sports marketing has existed it’s been selling us the story of victory; this all-consuming, selfish drive that actually sucks the fun out of physical activity. It makes a nice t-shirt slogan, but does your average Joe or Jane on the street really want to ‘Be Legendary?’ Is the phrase ‘I will what I want’ really that helpful in a team sport, let alone the wider context of society generally? That isn’t a competitive spirit that I can relate to, and not one that I think is healthy. I think at its most trivial, sport should be thought of as an evolution of playtime.
So I sense a shift. Increasingly, people don’t seem as willing to swallow sport as a selfish win-at-all-costs act. Instead the focus seems to be changing towards a more inclusive understanding of sport as selfless social enterprise that has far-reaching benefits with regards to inclusivity, body image, self-esteem, and overall health.
To come back to these fantastic Olympic stories, I think what connects them all together – and ultimately what resonates with the general public – is having a deeper sense of purpose. Something that doesn’t just make people get to the track or the gym in the morning, but actually gets them out of bed in the first place.
We saw athletes in Rio who were using their 15 minutes in the limelight to draw attention to more important issues, such as climate change threatening to wipe Kiribati off the map for good and the oppressive government regimes currently crippling Ethiopia.
These are demonstrations of the power of sport to lead the charge of social change. It speaks a lot to the character of some of these guys that when faced with the opportunity to revel in personal glory, they instead choose to divert people’s attention towards something greater than just themselves.
I guess the point is that sport is wonderful thing. In a board sense, it has the power to affect and shape the world in a way that politicians wish they could with their words. And then at a more personal level, it’s capable of giving every single person on the planet a strong sense of self-worth, and a feeling strength that will last longer than any split time or football result.
And having a purpose in life can be like rocket fuel when it’s harnessed correctly. Advancement doesn’t have to just be a physical thing; open-mindedness is as good a place to start as any. It gives an occasionally-much-needed sense of perspective to a world that can get bogged down by minutiae and self-gratification. Think about the Paralympics for example. Few things in recent memory have done as much to promote a full spectrum of positive body images and a sense of inclusivity, and it’s heart-warming to see it now taking increasingly-equal billing with the Olympics itself.
A touching moment: Nikki Hamblin helped Abbey D’agnostino over the line after they tripped each other up in the 5000m.
So if you feel like you’re struggling to stay in control of your life, or if you feel excluded and on the fringes, or if you don’t like what you see when you look in the mirror, then seek refuge in the warm embrace of sport. Sure you’ll sweat, but not the small stuff. All of sudden how many likes that photo of you got on Instagram will fade to insignificance and you’ll realise that only you truly have the power to attribute worth to yourself.
So get out there and play. But don’t just do it – do it because it matters. And always remember why you started doing it in the first place.