Chris Mazdzer, two-time Olympic luger and chair of the International Luge Federation’s (FIL) Athletes’ Commission, argues that we should refocus the narrative surrounding the Olympic Games to celebrate the achievements of the athletes
The five Olympic rings whose blue, yellow, black, green and red colours represent every flag in the world, is the most recognisable symbol worldwide.
What those rings mean, however, differs from person to person, as their perception is shaped by their own experiences, relationship to sports, and to the media. When I look at those five rings joined together I see the Olympic values of friendship, respect, excellence, determination, inspiration, courage and equality.
We, as a species, collectively crossed vast cultural and geographic divides to create the greatest celebration of humanity, and to that event we attached a distinctive philosophy of Olympism. This philosophy is a way of life based on the joy found in physical effort, respect for basic fundamental ethical principals, and the educational value of being a positive and responsible social example. The goal is to use sports as a means to harmoniously unite humankind, promote peace and preserve human dignity.
Unfortunately, in recent years the idyllic, benevolent and athletic nature of the Olympic Games has been challenged by an overly and unfairly negative discussion of ego and politics. But we can change this narrative.
A life-changing experience
When I was eight years old I had no concept of the Olympic Games, or what the Games would eventually mean to my life. At that young age when I discovered luge, I only saw it as the ultimate sledding hill and one of the few things I looked forward to during the frigid winters in Lake Placid, New York.
As time went on and my passion for luge took me to Europe at the impressionable young age of 13, I began to see how fulfilling this sport was even outside of competition. The friendships I made with my competitors helped shape me into a better athlete, son and brother, and community member.
When I qualified for the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 at the age of 21, I realised a lifelong dream after decades of determination and effort, and for the first time had the opportunity to experience the Olympic Games, and the Olympic philosophy, first hand.
My experience in Vancouver taught me that the actual competition is only one small part of the Olympic experience. I joined all of the other Team USA athletes to walk in the Opening Ceremony and collectively represent an entire nation. In that moment I got to meet some of the USA’s greatest winter athletes, and discover how truly humble and inspiring they are. That goes to show that even at the point that you arrive at the Olympic Games, you can become further inspired by other athletes to be your best.
Also during the ceremony, to see a crowd filled with people from across the world who would support and cheer us on for the next 14 days is a feeling impossible to describe in words – and showcased how sport can cross borders and bring disparate people together in celebration. Another way I saw how sport could unite countries and cultures was unfortunately a result of the passing of my fellow luge competitor, Georgia’s Nodar Kumaritashvili, during a training accident in Vancouver. Athletes from all parts of the world joined together in remembrance to pay respect and help process the tragedy in front of the world’s media.
Shifting the focus of the world’s media
PyeongChang 2018 will be my third Olympic Winter Games, and the trend I have seen since Vancouver in the build-up to both the Summer and Winter Games is media coverage straying from the athletes or Olympic values, which are what I believe make the Games society’s greatest event. Rather, the focus in the media is on the cost of running the Olympic Games, security and political threats, and scandals within host nations and past host nations.
This should not be construed to say that I don’t believe these issues shouldn’t be covered. They should. And changes do need to be made surrounding costs, security, and physical and mechanical doping. But those topics should not be the primary focus in the media. The media’s focus needs to remain on the values of Olympism, on athletes who are true role models in society, and on the role of sports in improving humankind.
We need to highlight our true heroes. People who make all of the correct sacrifices. Those athletes who don’t take shortcuts to achieve their goals, and who compete through determination, perseverance and consistency to attain what people may see as impossible. We need to be showing our youth the heroes of the Olympic Games, and not the negative and easily sensationalised aspects of humanity.
For instance, while tuning in to NBC’s coverage of Rio 2016, I expected to watch Ashton Eaton, the greatest athlete in the world, as he fought his way to Olympic glory – but our society thought it was more important to showcase Ryan Lochte’s apology over an incident resulting from not adhering to the philosophy of Olympism. Instead of showing a true Olympic athlete competing in a non-flashy discipline such as decathlon, negativity and media ratings ruled.
Celebrating the athletes
Where else does the world come together to support, enjoy and praise the hard work of amateur athletes? Let us talk about the struggle that these athletes face when it comes to supporting and realising their dream. When kids are small they have aspirations to become an astronaut, president of their county, or even an Olympian. The reason that kids want to become an astronaut, president or Olympian is because they see these heroes on television and in the media.
As amateur athletes who, for the most part, do not receive the coverage that professional athletes enjoy, the Olympic Games represent our opportunity to show integrity, determination and the sacrifices that we have made to pursue our passion and our sport. This is the opportunity to highlight true role models for society; to focus on how we can find a common theme through sports, so that we can connect with other people from around the world; and to demonstrate how a community of people from such different backgrounds can find friendship and understanding.
The Olympic Movement, in my opinion, is the only one that brings the entire world together in a harmonious expression of human nature. We are all different in terms of language, ethnicity and culture, and the beauty of the Olympic Games is that our societal differences do not matter.
We need to refocus the narrative surrounding the Olympic Games onto the ideals of Olympism, the meaning of the five rings, athletic heroism and positive societal role models.
Sports can, do, and will change the world. How we cover and celebrate the Olympic Games is the beginning of that process.