|Importance of Flags and Camaraderie in the Olympic Games|
The fundamental principles behind the Olympics have always been about celebrating the best of humanity, right back to the fist Ancient Olympic Games. The fittest and strongest champions coming together to find the fasted runner, best jumpers and the strongest fighters. However, there has also always been more than just individual aspect to the games, a very strong collective competitiveness that is of even greater importance.
At the Ancient Olympics, competitors would, for the most part, represent or be strongly linked to a major city of the time, such as Athens or Sparta. While a truce was called and the Olympics took place under peace, the strong rivalries between these city states remained, and having an Olympic Champion from your city became highly important for many reasons. It was a sign of strength and superiority of your state over the others, while also instilling a sense of pride and well being amongst your own people. The fact that many Olympic champions of Ancient Greece became legends in their time and since, even in some cases being elevated to godlike status, shows the high esteem and idolisation Olympic Champions received from their people, such was their importance to them.
The power that a champion could wield was recognised and used by those in power to install pride and a sense of community and belonging, and help strengthen the unity of the people of a state.
This effect on the ordinary people resulted in a camaraderie amongst Olympians, both between those from the same city state and also as a whole. Olympians from a city would often train together, even live much together in order to prepare, forming close bonds that would benefit them greatly come competition. It is better and more noble to fight for a common or shared cause, rather than one of your own.
However, although the rivalry between cities was intense, there grew a mutual respect and camaraderie between the competitors. Because they were all held in such high esteem, and so much was expected and hoped of them come the games, they each understood what it meant to their own people, and what it took to become a champion.
These elements of the Ancient games, while adapted, can clearly be seen in the collective nature of the modern Olympics. There is a strong, national identity at the games, with each country parading their flag strongly and competing under it, with strong unity between athletes of a nation and a shared understanding and respect between all athletes of what they have all had to go through to get there.
Teams and Athletes
It is no longer the case that an individual can go to a games and become a champion without any help. Indeed, it is very difficult to even get to compete at an Olympics without support. The team ideal and competing as part of a collective is very much used to aid and enhance performance, while it can also become detrimental if not handled effectively.
The team is obviously very important in team sports, where reliance of others is very much key to being successful. However, they too can benefit further from a greater collective unity. Whether an athlete's event is individual or team based, national identity plays an important role. If you speak to any athlete, competing in front of a home crowd means something different, something extra that cannot always be defined but is none the less very real. If looking at the London Olympics as an example, it is very clear that to the British athletes, the London Games is that much more special and important to them. Indeed, the importance of the London Games seems to be felt much wider than just British athletes. Many athletes across all competitive levels have expressed their feeling of excitement about London, something that seems to be special that they have not felt before. We perhaps won't know exactly why London seems that extra bit special until after the Games has finished, but there is an extra keen element of athletes from many nations to do well at London, and a big part of that is to do well for their country and their people.
The modern Olympic athlete has to do much more than just train and compete. They are ever increasingly role models to their country and communities, and in many cases internationally. Throughout the four year cycle they spend time in their communities working on many projects, often meeting some of the most needing in society. Throughout, they encounter countless people who tell them what it means to them when the athlete competes, and especially if they win. When it comes to competing in the Olympics, all athletes are acutely aware of the potential effect their performance will have at home. While most athletes find this an extra source of strength, further determination to do well as it is for more than just themselves, many have buckled under the pressure, unable to focus and produce their best performance, often for fear of failure, or even fear of success.
The pride of competing for your nation and the pressure of responsibility of the effect your result can have must be managed effectively by an athlete and teams as a collective.
Most sports at the Olympics have many events, and each country will have many athletes competing within a particular sport, with some in the same events. There will also be many athletes who have been training hard for many years with other athletes that just missed out on selection, through injury of performance reasons. It has therefore become very important that the athletes from a country within a particular sport become close if they are to each perform at their best come the Games, whether the sport is a team or individual one.
In many cases, athletes will be competing against each other in some events, and competing together in others, such as in the relays in athletics or swimming. Throughout training, these athletes need to get along well if they are to be both competitive against each other and also with each other. It will also be the case that for most of the preparation time the athletes will know they will not all make the final selection cut.
These and other aspects provides a potential environment for friction and division, which can be fatal to any Olympic medal hope. Each sport therefore strives to produce a strong collective amongst all its athletes working towards an Olympics, creating something much greater than their own success that they are working for. Stressing the importance of success as a sport as a whole, while maintaining a strong individual drive that will be required when the athletes stand alone at the point of competition, is vitally important to an Olympic sports team.
A good example of this is the British Cycling team of the last Olympics. Their domination was achieved through a strong individual but also an equally strong collective spirit amongst all the riders, both male and female. A shared objective of many years to make the British cycling team the best in the world was key to their success, and keenly felt by all their athletes, a sense of pride and worth felt by even those who missed out. This has been seen in many other cases, such as the successful Australian swimming team, Chinese gymnasts and American athletics teams.
This sense of camaraderie amongst athletes within a sport competing for each other and their country, while always present, has been particularly developed over the past ten to twenty years and is likely to be enhanced significantly further.
Fighting for the Flag
The wider collective is that of all the athletes from all the sports from a particular nation, which is again becoming increasingly important. While athletes have always felt a strong link to their nation and to fellow members of their sport, the collective link of a national team to their nation has become more developed recently.
Again, this becomes particularly pronounced when a national team is competing on home soil. The collective and individual responsibility in dealing with both domestic and international attention becomes greater, and the structure and support needed to deal with this increases also. With media attention ever increasing at each Olympics, and the social role of athletes becoming more important, a coordinated face of a national Olympic team, of the athletes and the related support staff, has become vital.
For London, the British competition has been very much put forward as 'Team GB', stressing the collective nature of their goals and their collective link to the British people. This has a number of benefits.
Firstly, it provides the athletes with the support, structure and also protection required to enable them to carry out their non-sporting related commitments and responsibilities while successfully completing their required training and preparation.
Secondly, in a similar way to that of the sports team collective already outlined, this provides a greater collective spirit for the athletes, creating a sense of 'strength in numbers', that they are not taking on the world on their own, but they are doing so together. Creating this feeling of support, coupled with a determination to succeed for each other, not just themselves, can be an additional source of strength, while also create the same potential to negatively effect performance that must be addressed and managed.
There is also the potential for a greater link to the people and spectators. While it is now possible to feel closer to individual athletes and teams through modern technologies and social interactions, and these connections can provide a strong bond and have a strong emotional effect on spectators, they do not feel they are competing, it is still the athlete. However, by creating a collective national team, and each athlete is competing to enhance the success of that nation, there is a much stronger sense from people of that nation that they are involved, they are part of it, not merely watching. The collective 'we' goes beyond that of the athletes to include the nation as a whole.
Engaging a nations population in this way is particularly important for the home nation, as it is their people that will fill the seats and largely create the atmosphere for the games. It is perhaps this, in part at least, why London is exciting athletes and spectators around the world like no other, as the stadiums will all be full for each sport, and the inclusion of spectators in the Olympics is set to be greater than ever before.
Coaches and Support Staff
A modern Olympic athlete now has many supporting people around them, with coaches, trainers, medical staff and more. There is also a significantly large administration staff required for organisation and support in several direct and non-direct areas. Many of these people will work long hours, full time over several years with athletes for their one moment to achieve something special. There will also be many who give up their time freely, with the volunteer sector a strong part of both the functional and ethical aspects of the Olympics. The success of an athlete is ever more down to their hard work, and it is important that these people also feel their worth and a deep connection to an athletes success if they are to give their all time and again to ultimately produce the best from their athletes.
This is a key part of both the individual national sports teams and the national team as a whole. Coaches, trainers and other support staff will in many cases be working with several athletes and teams across events within their sports, and often be a major contributor to the collective spirit established within them. Those that head individual sports and each of the nations are keenly aware of the role the support staff play, and by creating a strong collective that these people are very much part of helps to contribute to the best possible performance.
These people will often be the ones that athletes turn to during training and during competition, when they are at their weakest, most vulnerable or under the greatest pressure. It is often these supporting staff that help them overcome any negative aspect and produce their performance, while also helping the athletes to be able to overcome them themselves. Strong bonds between them and the athletes, built over many years, and a sense of competing as a collective, rather than individual athletes on their own, greatly enhances the desire to succeed, and to give that little bit extra to be the best. This is why you so often hear athletes dedicating their successes to their coaches and others close to them.
This camaraderie is greatly enhanced by the notion of competing 'for the flag'. It is a common bind between them all that gives them a sense of belonging, self worth, a pride that is an important driving force in them helping to prepare their athletes, as their success is their own success.
A key aim of the Olympic movement has always been wider social development and this is set to be most successfully produced by the London Olympics. Increased sporting participation, better health, greater community cohesion, enhanced understanding and tolerance, mutual respect and, of course, the ultimate aim of world piece, are all key objectives. While much of the work done on these areas is internationally coordinated, it is through individual nations that the effects are produced.
The Olympic movement realises that people feel most strongly connected to those most closely related to them. This, by enlarge, progresses from family, to community, to nationality. While many athletes touch people of all nations, most athletes have their strongest connections to and influence on the people of their own country. Because of this, the potential of an athlete to impact positively is greatest on their own people. The ideals of the Olympic movement is therefore best served and most effectively spread by linking to people through their athletes.
Creating strong national affiliations and connections therefore becomes a key part of effectively spreading the Olympic ideals. The stronger the people feel to athletes from their nations, the greater the potential for those athletes to positively affect their lives. The work done in communities by athletes is greatly enhanced if the connections with those communities are strong, while the good role models of athletes that are created by the ideals of the Olympics have a greater impact on guiding peoples' behaviour.
However, this strong link and association between athletes and their people can have a negative effect if the athletes do something negative, such as cheating through drugs or poor behaviour.
By creating a strong link to people as a collective national team, with a strong sense of camaraderie, the potential for negative impact is significantly reduce while also greatly enhancing the potential for positively influencing people.
A strong sport and national Olympic team, as discussed, with high levels of support, helps athletes to manage what is required of them and deal with their individual needs, steering them away from actions that may negatively influence the people that feel closely connected to them amongst the general public.
With a larger collective focus, it is also the case that a single negative action will have less of a potential impact. If the focus is placed more on the ideals and actions of the group as a whole, if the role model perception is of an entire Olympics team more so than just single athletes, the associated positive ideals remain strongly linked through to the general population when a single athlete does something negative. This collective focus will become more and more important as the media attention increases, as more negative incidences are likely to be exposed.
With the negative impact of role models reduced by the collective, national team focus, the potential for positive influence on people and society is also further increased. As discussed, a stronger bond with the people of a country can be created by competing as part of a larger team, as this team's identity becomes much more national and less individual, and becomes more inclusive as a result. Those that do not have a specific link to an athlete or the Olympics can have a more general one. The stronger the bond to the Olympics, the greater its potential to have a positive effect on society in the areas that are at the heart of the Olympic movement.
Overall, the greater collective nature of the Olympics, rather than focusing solely on the athletes as individuals, combined with a strong, national identity and accompanying connection with the nations people, helps to not only support and enhance the performance of athletes and teams, but also increase the potential for positive impact of the Olympic movement on society as a whole.
Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University
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