2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #6: To Walk (in Opening Ceremonies) or Not To Walk

Years, even decades of training go into an Olympic bid, and most of the millions that attempt this feat fail to join the few thousand that do. Morning, afternoon and evening they suffer, sweating and straining in pursuit of a distant dream – a few remembered snapshots from childhood serving as the glowing grail for this quest. For most, those images can be distilled down to two mental pictures that have kept them motivated all these years. First and foremost is the vision of climbing the podium, bending down to receive an Olympic medal to the roar of the crowd and the tears of joy and relief from friends and family.

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There is another dream though, one that is far more realistic for the thousands of Olympians here chasing dozens of medals, and that dream is to march in the opening ceremonies and witness the pageantry surrounding the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. But this dream is fading: more and more athletes are skipping the opening ceremonies and the parade of nations has become a gentrified walk of coaches and staff.

Why? You might ask.

In pursuit of the primary dream, everything becomes secondary – the vision of that ephemeral medal becomes ever more singular and lesser, more realistic dreams fall away. To walk in opening ceremonies is to be on your feet for 2 – 3 hours – certainly not on anyone’s list of “best preparation” techniques for an athletic competition. Many simply choose not to attend – which is certainly their right.

However, some are just banned from participating by coaches and staff. At least one team I’m aware of was banned by their NGB (national governing body) to walk in the opening ceremonies – and there are probably dozens more. Then there is the middle ground, some are “guilted” out of going. For the U.S. Short Track team in 2010, they were told it would be “selfish” to walk.

Wait, you say, "that’s terrible!"

Well, perhaps it is not so simple. As a skater in the relay, three other people who have dedicated their life to this sport are relying on YOU to put in the performance of a lifetime – just to make it to the medal round. If a skater were to walk in the opening ceremony and fail to pull his or her weight during the race – and the team were to lose as a result, then yes, perhaps that would be selfish.

Further, there is the mental aspect – everyone is always trying to find that edge, a refrain in the brain saying “I’ll bet the Koreans are not walking,” starts to further frame the issue.

I’m very happy to have the memories of walking in the Lillehammer opening ceremonies and witnessing the spectacle of a ski jumper flying 100 meters through the air while carrying a flaming torch in his grasp…

But, I have to admit I would trade that memory in a second for the silver medal those games also provided.

Is there a solution to this quandary? One solution would be to require every competing athlete to walk in the opening ceremonies in order to even the playing field. This seems unlikely, but the second solution is potentially more realistic – what if they planned the opening ceremonies two days before the first event?

I’m reminded that the Olympic motto is “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”