“Win at all costs” – we hear it all the time in our ultra-competitive world, but what does it really mean?
Having watched the compelling Netflix documentary ‘Athlete A’ about the physical and sexual abuse suffered by young USA female gymnasts in recent years, it made me think.
I am from that world.
I was desperate to win and in pursuit of my Olympic gold medal a lot of other things suffered in my life – my family, friends, studies, body and mind all had to take a toll.
But I had a dream and I was prepared to pay that price. That was my choice.
‘Athlete A’ revealed an appalling amount of abuse within an organisation that has produced the brilliance of Simone Biles (top).
And this is the USA, maybe the pinnacle of Olympic success.
It wasn’t just the abuse, it was the culture that existed around it. All that mattered were medals.
The gymnasts were just pawns in making this happen.
They would come and go – but the institution of USA Gymnastics was all that was important. It was about power, prestige and money.
The reaction of current and ex-gymnasts to ‘Athlete A’ on social media was extraordinary. In solidarity they stood in support of the survivors and for a better future culture within gymnastics.
It clearly hit a nerve and many of them were deeply affected by it. Olympic bronze medallist Nile Wilson talked powerfully about it on social media.
No one has said that this sort of abuse has existed within other gymnastics federations, but equally no one has denied that there haven’t been cultural issues with how gymnasts have been treated in the past. The line was very much that the sport has come a long way, but still has work to do.
Perhaps the reaction from other gymnasts said it all.
The reality is that Olympic sports here are driven by funding from UK Sport. That funding is determined by success. Quite literally, Olympic medals equal millions of pounds for each sport. In some cases, it determines whether the sport survives at all at that level.
In light of the questions that ‘Athlete A’ raises, this dynamic troubles me.
I appreciate allocating funding is difficult, but does a ‘medals equal money’ model not lean towards a ‘Win at all costs’ culture in which athletes are susceptible to poor treatment?
And in a sport like gymnastics, this involves athletes that are very young. These are difficult questions I believe need to be examined.
Don’t get me wrong, we play elite sport to win. Olympic medals matter to people and countries.
But we don’t have to damage people’s lives in that pursuit. Success, health
and happiness are not mutually exclusive.