Gold Medal Ambitions – Reflections on the Olympics

Rosie MacLennan at Toronto Kiwanis BGC
Rosie MacLennan at Toronto Kiwanis BGC

On Wednesday, I was fortunate to be at the Toronto Kiwanis Boys & Girls Club to welcome home our gold-medal gymnast, Rosie MacLennan.  It was exciting to watch the kids surround her, getting t-shirts autographed and enjoying some messy and creative painting (using sports equipment to imprint soccer balls, tennis balls, racquets, hockey sticks, etc. on large sheets of canvas).  And of course, they all wanted to see and touch those two gold medals (one from Rio, one from London).  I have to admit, so did I!

We’ve seen our fair share of Olympic athletes at Boys and Girls Clubs, including marathoner Eric Gillis visiting our Toronto office last December, and a Vancouver 2010 Olympic torch sits on display in our boardroom.  We’ve had a connection to Olympic athletes and the Olympic games for quite some time.

Every Olympics brings out swirling controversy, and not just the Ryan Lochte kind—the question of cost vs. benefit:  Doesn’t it seem like a lot of money to spend on venues and logistics for the elite athletes of the world, when there are so many more pressing needs in society?  Rio brought home the disparity between the excesses of Olympic spending and the favelas of poorer Brazilians who would see little direct benefit from the Games.  The Bread Not Circuses movement has always opposed the spending on the Games, in favour of more social spending.  And public policy has always had this debate—the Roman emperors were famous for spending lavishly on entertaining the public (witness the Roman coliseum) as a way to keep the populace from revolting—or even paying attention to—unfavourable political decisions.

Boys & Girls Clubs live somewhere in the middle of this debate.  On one hand, we are about improving social conditions, often working with children, youth, and families that are struggling and need better social policy.  We have a voice on issues like homelessness, poverty, child care and education, indigenous youth, employment, and many more.  We see first-hand the effects of economic and social disparity and we are trying to overcome the detrimental effects of challenging environments and neighbourhoods.

On the other hand, our athletes inspire us and inspire our kids.  They are role models that offer a direct example of how hard work, dedication, and perseverance can pay off on the world stage.  We know that sport is a great outlet, and a great motivator.  We know it offers a physical outlet for kids who are too often asked to sit all day, and a way to enocurage focused attention and the capacity to enjoy and improve at a skill.  It offers lessons in success and failure.  And we know that kids are inspired when they see athletic role models, from professional sports to amateur sports like in the Olympics.

As I overheard one girl ask Rosie, “How can I become an athlete?”, I confirmed what I knew—you cannot have one without the other.  You cannot spend only on social policies without also investing in creating role models and events to showcase their skills and dedication to inspire and motivate a generation.  We need both ends of the spectrum.  We need the Olympics to raise our sights and bring us together, and we need smart social policy and spending to give each of us an opportunity to start from a level playing field.

I’m not saying that the Olympics is a good use of money—there are clearly huge amounts of excess financial waste and spending, and it’s an institution rocked by scandal and issues of trust.  But the Games themselves shine through all the mess (and the green water) to remind us we all have potential, and we can each strive to achieve more.  And that after two weeks of athletes on TV, maybe it’s time for all of us to get out and get a bit more physically active!

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