Lessons from Rio

The Olympic Games brought the world together under peaceful, if sometimes contentious conditions, and showed us the enormous capacity and possibility of our common humanity. It was an inspiring moment at a difficult time for the world. Other noteworthy lessons from Rio:

1. Facilities matter. Canada’s Own the Podium program was successful but it’s not the whole story. The wonderful Canadian performances in Rio also demonstrated the value of investment in grass roots public institutions that make sports matter.

Sport and recreation is not all about winning—it’s about giving individuals joie de vivre and confidence and  building stronger, healthier, happier and safer communities. Communities that participate in sport and recreation develop strong social bonds, they are safer places and the people who live in them are generally healthier and happier than people who live in communities where physical activity isn’t a priority. Research tells us that children who are physically active do better in school because physical activity enhances cognitive function, improving memory, behaviour, concentration and academic achievement. Talk about return on an investment!

With good planning, Olympic cities can turn venues into assets, just like we did with Toronto 2015. Although the jury is still out on Rio, it looks like the handball venue will be converted into four schools, the city now enjoys better, more efficient lighting in public spaces including Flamengo Park, the city’s largest public park, and redevelopment of the port has created a vibrant new cultural and recreational zone.

After the 2012 Games in London, the once heavily polluted site of Olympic Park has become a massive new park complete with wildlife habitats, woods and sports facilities. And all of Vancouver’s 2010 Games venues remain in use with a locally funded trust ensuring they don’t fall into disrepair.

We need ensure that future Games bring lasting benefits.

2. We need to broaden the base. As much as the investment in high performance sport is important, sport and recreation should be for everyone, every day. Every four years is not enough. We must realize the Olympian in everyone, in every community, every day.

3. The world is full of amazing people. CBC and TSN just let the tape run, inviting us to watch incredible moments in qualifying as well as final competition. This year’s Games broadcasts gave us a record number of countries, a record number of athletes winning medals, and countries like Fiji, winning a gold medal for the very first time. We also got to see thousands of athletes who didn’t get near the podium, caught on camera, winning our respect.

We saw fierce competition, athletes applauding each others' achievements, and supporting each other through crises. When American Abby d’Agostino and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin tumbled on the track, d’Agostino didn’t keep running—she helped Hamblin up and urged her to keep running; later in the race Hamblin helped d’Agostino who was struggling to finish. Their mutual kindnesses reminded us that we're all in this together.

For the first time ever refugees created their own team from countries like Syria, Sudan and The Congo. Becoming an Olympian was not the toughest challenge these athletes had to overcome in their lives; they came from refugee camps and had crossed the Mediterranean in a raft to escape war.

4. It’s time to address the contradictions. The Games were uplifting despite doping, corruption and political scandal. Rio showed us: the collective spirit is stronger than any drug cheat or official who puts themself first.

Yet the current model for the Games is not sustainable. We need to answer questions about equity, cost, accountability and sustainability, for the IOC and also for the world. IOC President Bach has begun the reform process, but we need to help him accelerate it. It’s my view that the Olympics belong to the world, not to just one site. The athletes have shown us: this is about a fair playing field, about equity, about community—that’s the Olympic spirit.

We should continue to rotate the location of the Games to where they can do the most good. Countries of the world should join together to socialize the cost. The events, and their legacies, must be shared.

5. We can’t forget the Paralympics. Beginning September 7, we’ll watch, and support, our Para-athletes as they come together in Rio. We’ll be treated to two more weeks of competition that gives us tremendous national pride and shows us the beauty of the world community.

In Rio 155 Para-athletes will represent Canada, led by the outstanding wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, who lost both of her legs in an accident as a teenager and has 21 career Paralympic medals—14 of them Gold. Every Para-athlete will touch us with their story and the unforgettable moments delivered in their performances.

Tune in to see Zak Madell, the star of wheelchair rugby at last year’s Parapan American Games, and Canada’s flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. He lost his fingers and legs to a septic staph infection when he was 10 years old. Sports appealed to Zak’s competitive nature and his love of speed. Recruited to wheelchair rugby in 2011, his rise in the sport has been called meteoric. Zak earned a spot on the London 2012 Paralympic team even though he had been playing for only a year. His performance brought Canada victory in its semi-final upset of the top-ranked American team. In just a few years, Zak has established himself as one of the world’s best.

Toronto’s Jason Roberts overcame child abuse that left him with a brain injury caused by repeated head trauma. He’ll be representing Canada in shot put, discuss and javelin. Relatively new to these sports, Jason won Gold in shot put at last year’s Parapan American Games and Bronze in Discus at the Paralympic Committee World Championships. He says sports improve his life. Jason’s local community is with him every step of the way—in spirit and in fact: Robotics students at Jason’s alma mater Chaminade College School customized the chair and platform he uses in training and competition.

American Bradley Snyder won a Gold medal in the London Paralympics, a year from the day that he lost his sight serving in Afghanistan when an IED detonated just a few feet from where he stood. Brad says, “Olympians show you what the human body is capable of, Paralympians show you what the human spirit is capable of.”

The Paralympic Games are the world’s number one sporting event for driving social inclusion. According to the International Paralympic Committee, over a million spectators watched the Games in Barcelona in 1992, 20 years later, 2.76 million bought tickets while a cumulative audience of 3.8 billion made the 2012 London Paralympic Games the third largest sporting event in Great Britain. After those Games, one in three people in the UK—roughly 20 million—said their attitudes towards disability had changed.

Every athlete has a story to tell. It’s up to us to listen, watch, learn and make the world a better place. 


Photo: Team Canada marches in the 'Heroes of the Games' portion of the Closing Ceremony, by Getty Images/Patrick Smith from www.rio2016.com