What does the Winter Olympics mean to you?

Sports psychologists look forward to the event in South Korea this February.

In 2012, The Psychologist ran an article entitled 'What does the Olympics mean to you?' Themes of inclusion, (dis)ability, learning, diversity, development, role modelling, legacy, and many more came up. Suffice it to say, the Olympics make us think. A lot. And in very diverse ways. It’s incredible what a sporting event can do to make us reflect on broader society. Given the 2018 Winter Olympics are around the corner, undoubtedly some of us will engage in some form of refection. To jump start the process, I asked myself and a few colleagues, what the Winter Olympics mean to us.   

Paul Gorczynski
University of Portsmouth

What it takes to be an athlete

A central platform of sociological thinking, articulated most famously by C. Wight Mills, is making the familiar strange; to purposefully take a different perspective on conventional wisdom. To do so requires thinking critically about not only what people do, but also how and why they do it. Such processes enable new or fresh insight. Said differently, a successful sociologist will be able to take their object of focus and see that which seems natural or obvious, is neither of those things.

In this regard, the Winter Olympics provide a head start in critical thinking because, for most people, the events are unfamiliar. Indeed, even for many ardent sport fans, the Winter Games seem 'strange'. As such, the Winter Olympics provide an entry-point for reconsidering many of the assumptions held dear of competitive sport generally and the place and purpose of hosting of large-scale sporting events specifically (Clift & Manley, 2016).

For many, there is still a romantic notion of the training involved in being an elite athlete; that champions are produced through the singular focus, drive, sacrifice, and dedication of individuals. Here I am reminded of Muhammad Ali for whom 'the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.' In the Winter Olympics the sheer equipment intensity of the events starts to show just how much high-performance sport requires support far, far beyond the individual athlete.

To blend boxing and the Winter Olympics we can think of the juxtaposition in the film Rocky IV with the hi-tech, scientific 'new school' approach of Ivan Drago versus the 'old school' of Rocky. Virtually all Winter Olympics events are totally reliant on very specialised and very expensive equipment. In the public imagination, conventional wisdom is that champions are made primarily through sacrifice and deep drive the combined overcome even the biggest obstacles. This is the fundamental appeal of the Rocky films. The reality of elite sport, however, is different. Modern elite sport is a data intensive integration of people and things (Kerr, 2016). The Winter Olympics bring into sharper relief that modern high-performance athletes are, like Ivan Drago, cyborgs (Haraway, 1990): an intimate and essential connection between humans and machines forged in the furnace of what Jean-Marie Brohm described as 'scientifically-endorsed legalised torture'.

The cyborg nature of the Winter Olympics, then, demonstrates to me that elite sport is not as accessible as we wish it to be because of the intense specialisation of athletic training, the network of support staff around an athlete, and the equipment required, not only in competition but also training. It is impossible to imagine the Winter Olympics having an equivalent remotely close to Abebe Bikila winning the Olympic marathon barefoot. For one, it is impossible to ski, slide, board, or skate without equipment. Secondly, access to any of these sports is not only cost prohibitive but also geographically exclusive. The Winter Olympics are undoubtedly exciting and captivating. Ultimately, for me, the Winter Olympiad is a bunch of rich cyborgs playing in the snow.

Kass Gibson
Plymouth Marjon University

References

Brohm, J.M. (1978). Sport, a Prison of Measured Time. London: Ink Links Ltd.

Clift, B.C. & Manley, A. (2016). Five reasons why your city won’t want to host the Olympic Games. The Conversation. Retrieved December 4, 2017 from http://theconversation.com/five-reasons-why-your-city-wont-want-to-host-the-olympic-games-52289

Haraway, D. (1990). A Cyborg Manifesto. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149–181). London: Routledge.

Kerr, R. (2016). Sport and Technology. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mills, C.W. (1961). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Grove Press.

 

Who am I?

When I think of the Winter Olympics I immediately think of the 1988 Games that were held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I was seven years old at the time. My mom and I had just moved to Toronto from Poland and we were getting used to living in a new country. As immigrants, Canada presented us with a new start, many opportunities, and hope for a better future. At least, that’s what my mom used to say. Back then, as a seven year old, my biggest concern was finding enough time to go tobogganing.

The 1988 Winter Olympics were a big deal in Canada and a lot of time and money was spent on creating a Canadian experience. The torch relay was long, extensive, and it covered most of the country. Petro-Canada, the sponsor of the relay, helped everyone get into the Olympic spirit and 'share the flame' by selling commemorative glassware. By the end of the games, it seemed like every one of my friends had a least one glass. In addition to the glassware, Hidy and Howdy, the official mascots of the Calgary Games, were very popular. Hidy and Howdy were polar bears who wore western themed attire. I later learned that they made nearly 50,000 appearances before retiring at the conclusion of the Games (XV Olympic Winter Games Organizing Committee, 1988). It’s true: they were everywhere. But, I wasn’t too fond of them. In fact, they scared me. It was something to do with their glazed eyes and open mouths. To me, their expressions seemed frozen and their enthusiasm for the Calgary Games forced.

But glassware and polar bear mascots aside, perhaps my greatest memory of those Olympics was that of the first-round ice hockey match between Poland and Canada. It was a close match, but Canada won 1-0, and I was left terribly conflicted. Was I happy that Canada won? Was I sad that Poland lost? Why was I so emotional? I view that match as one of the earliest moments where I started to take on a Canadian identity. I remember talking to my mum about this and asking her about how I should view myself: as Polish or Canadian? My mum and I discussed this a lot without much resolution. Who were we? Polish immigrants? Individuals on our way to Canadian citizenship?

I remember the identity conflict left me quite unsettled and led me to speak to someone I really looked up to at the time: my grade 2 teacher, Mrs McCarthy. She recommended that I reflect on my feelings, write about them, and draw pictures. Her insistence on this reflective practice was instrumental in helping me understand what I was feeling and make sense of it as best as I could as a seven year old. The practice also helped me work on something that was vital to my early development: the ability to read, write, and think in English. As a good teacher, Mrs. McCarthy recognised a great learning opportunity and didn’t let it get away. Although I struggled with my national identity for many years, Mrs McCarthy provided me with foundational skills to explore this topic. Her intervention was far more helpful in allowing me to think about my national identity than any glass or mascot ever could. 

Little did I know, the Winter Olympics helped me to address how I viewed myself in my new home. 

Paul Gorczynski
University of Portsmouth

References

XV Olympic Winter Games Organizing Committee (1988). XV Olympic Winter Games: Official Report. Retrieved December 1, 2017, from http://library.la84.org/6oic/OfficialReports/1988/orw1988pt1.pdf

Petro-Canada – Share the flame (1987). Share the flame. Retrieved December 1, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOANKlwdJyk

 

The Artistry of Olympians

The winter Olympic Games were always a highlight for my family. Perhaps it was the wonder of winter sports for a child growing up in the mild, wet climate of Ireland when the notion of a 'snow day' was a rare delight! The sport that had myself and my family hooked was skating. We were captivated by the grace and athleticism of the skaters, a combination of gymnastics and dance on a thin blade. 

Over successive Games we watched the rise of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the former insurance clerk and policeman.  Interviews and documentaries added a richness to their journey from talented junior skaters with other partners to a formidable pairing who achieved the allusive perfect 6.0 for their free dance routine to Ravel's Boléro at the Sarajevo games in 1984. The national interest in Torvill and Dean provided me with my first insight into the sacrifices athletes willingly make. Early starts, long hours and continual rehearsal are obvious but the financial commitment and the social lives foregone all to produce four minutes of magic before a worldwide audience once every four years was less understood. Malina (2010) referred to elite youth athletes as an exceptional minority – at a stage when many of us extend our social circle beyond the family, these individuals dedicate what time they have to their sport.  In the case of more individual and minority sports, competitive youth athletes often move in an adult-centric world of parents and coaches, with the notable absence of peers (Holt & Dunn, 2004) and the freedom to explore multiple possible selves.  

When physical movement perfectly aligns with the emotional tempo of a musical score the performance is elevated, I find myself totally absorbed and caught, then and there in the moment. The gradual progression of their routine to the building momentum of Bolero, for me is a perfect example of this – a performance that when I see it, even years after, transports me back to my parents’ living room.  Watching figure skating now having worked alongside physiologists, biomechanics, and dance colleagues gives me even more admiration for the artistic and technical elements that combine to create a performance. I am continually amazed by jumps, spins and turns that with each successive year extend the reach of human movement. Just how does a skater accelerate, decelerate, bend and rotate on such as small surface area on ice? 

Whilst the sensory motor activation of the skater can and has been scrutinised by various scientists I will continue to be amazed by the sum total of all these elements into four minutes of synergised perfection.  

Ruth Lowry
University of Chichester

References

Holt, N.L. & Dunn, J. G. H. (2004). Toward a grounded theory of the psychosocial competencies and environmental conditions associated with soccer success. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16, 199-219. 

Malina, R. (2010). Early sport specialization: Roots, effectiveness, risks.  Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9, 364-371. 

 

Under pressure

As someone who loves sport, and has a research interest in choking in sport, I always watch avidly any event where the athletes perform under intense levels of pressure. For the athletes involved in winter sports, the Winter Olympic Games represents the pinnacle of their career. So, I watch as a fan, and as a sport psychologist, to see who will thrive under that pressure, and who will capitulate and choke.

I think back to Lizzie Yarnold MBE, who at the Socchi Winter Olympic Games performed to expectations, and won the skeleton gold medal by the largest margin ever recorded (0.97 seconds). In the build-up to the event, I remember her saying that for the previous four years, every single decision she had made, and every action she had taken, had been directed towards winning that one race. Such a meticulous level of preparation was evidently the key factor in her success – and critically, it involved physical, technical, and psychological preparation. To ensure she would maintain attentional control and execute the skill under the extreme pressure, Lizzie worked extensively with a sport psychologist (Charlie Unwin). This led to her mental toughness being widely acknowledged as her best asset.

I also remember Elise Christie, who was disqualified three times from her speed skating events. Not only did she leave Socchi without the expected medal, she also had to cope with wide-spread criticisms, cyberbullying, and even death threats. While Elise was certainly on the wrong side of refereeing decisions, she also made errors at key pressurised moments. Many claimed that she had choked under the pressure, which happens when athletes focus their attention on the explicit components of their skill, or become distracted by irrelevant stimuli (e.g. consequence of failure etc.; see Hill, Hanton, Matthews & Fleming, 2010).

Through the use of psychological skills (e.g., process goals, self-talk and imagery) choking can be prevented, and optimal performance encouraged. So, it is pleasing to see that Elise started working with a sport psychologist after Socchi. Now, when I think to next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, I am mainly thinking about Elise. I want to see that the discipline of sport psychology has played a part in helping her manage effectively the demands of the Games, and enabled her to take the gold medal for Team GB.

Denise Hill
Swansea University

References

Hill, D. M., Hanton, S., Matthews, N., & Fleming, S. (2010). Choking in sport: A review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(1), 24-39.

 

- So what does the Winter Olympics mean to you? If you're a member of the British Psychological Society you can comment below; and / or email the editor on [email protected] for consideration for inclusion here.

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