Olympic Trials and Tribulations

July 21, 2016

Dr. Jim ThomaExpert Voices

Olympic Trials and Tribulations: Dr. Jim Thoma, Professor of Sports Business, Former Coach and Business Manager for Olympic Teams

Where Legends Are Born

The 2016 Games of the Olympiad, commonly called the Summer Olympics, will be held from August 4 – 22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Throughout the spring and early summer, each Olympic sport will choose its team and athletes during the Olympic trials or other qualifying methods. Interestingly, for many athletes, making an Olympic team is more important than winning an Olympic medal. The reality is that few athletes actually have a chance to earn an Olympic medal. However, once an athlete is selected to compete, that person will forever be known and introduced as an Olympian, no matter how he or she performs in the Olympic Games. This realization struck me while working at the 1980 Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. (Note: Eugene will also host the 2016 Track and Field Olympic Trials.)

I was asked to be the business manager for the 1980 Olympic track and field team and travel with the team while representing the USA track and field federation. As such, I was able to witness the emotion of the athletes when they finished in the top three of their event and the joy they felt by making the Olympic team firsthand. Subsequently, being in the room where the newly-selected Olympians were processed for their Olympic credentials and given their Olympic uniforms was such a memorable experience for everyone there, especially the athletes. Forever an Olympian!

Now or never

One aspect that has become more well-known recently is the psychological preparation athletes experience before the Olympics. Of course all performers, athletes or not, prepare mentally for their performances. However, what is unique about the Olympics is that they are only held every four years. For many it is now or never! And the consequences of that one competition are huge.

This struck me as I was having dinner with the top USA decathlete after a competition in Berlin, Germany, in 1980. The previous Olympic decathlon champion, Bruce Jenner, had become world famous with his victory in the Montreal Olympics; he even had his picture on the Wheaties box. Being the Olympic champion and “world’s greatest athlete” is a mantra never removed. The 1980 USA decathlete had anticipated becoming equally as famous and earning a lifetime income based on the Olympic results. However, he expressed tremendous disappointment to me that he had no chance at an Olympic medal because of the Olympic boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games, something he had absolutely no control over. Now, the decathlete’s name is only known to a few.

Food or fuel?

Another interesting aspect of Olympic preparation is the food. Most Olympians are very careful with what they eat in order to maximize their competition build-up. When athletes travel to a number of countries for competition, they often have to adapt to what food is available and its preparation. In Stuttgart, Germany, the Olympic team was having dinner in the hotel. Near me I heard, “Yuck, I am not eating that!” A couple more athletes loudly agreed. The food seemed fine to me, just beef and vegetables. One athlete had read the posted menu that was on the table. The meat was “beef lips.” There was no way these athletes were going to eat beef lips, no matter how tasty. These Olympians, including an American record holder, were not going to take any chances with food that may disrupt their competition preparation!

Food preparation is not just an American idiosyncrasy. At the Asian Track and Field Championships held in Jakarta, Indonesia, I was in the dining hall with my team from the country of Brunei Darussalam. The Japanese team entered carrying their own food. They were not going to eat anything that would possibly disrupt their performances. I also observed this when my team from the state of Sabah was at the Malaysian national championships. The meals were prepared in Malay style, spicy hot, and many of my athletes did not eat this style of preparation in their daily lives. There were no other food options and some of my athletes had stomach and intestinal problems that affected their race performance preparation.

Champions’ focus

Preparation for the competition is also mental. Again, when the Olympians are traveling away from home, out of their comfort zone, any kind of disruption can affect their performances. Because this is the Olympics, any faltering becomes magnified on the international stage. For example, while traveling together in Europe, two USA Olympians had a wonderful romance. The young couple had a lovers’ spat and both were in foul moods, which had the potential to affect their athletic performances. Seeing this, a USA Olympic team official had flowers delivered to the female athlete with a note from her Olympian boyfriend. The couple reconciled, all was well, and their performances never suffered.

Being an Olympian is a lifetime honor that athletes take very seriously. The extent of the mental and physical preparation is not commonly known outside the team, but is often crucial to the athletes’ success when representing their countries. I have been honored and privileged to observe and share these experiences as a coach and administrator – something I cannot ever fully express!

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