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Amateur sportsOlympic education: spreading modern Games message

Posted: Friday, January 27, 2012 | 10:00 PM

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Canadian female boxer Mary Spencer, left, has the ability to create an instant legacy, not to mention personal wealth by winning the inaugural Olympic gold medal in her sport. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press) Canadian female boxer Mary Spencer, left, has the ability to create an instant legacy, not to mention personal wealth by winning the inaugural Olympic gold medal in her sport. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

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Another mile marker has been passed. The Games are getting closer. Now there are less than six months to go until the 2012 Olympics open in London.

Another mile marker has been passed. The Games are getting closer. Now there are less than six months to go until the 2012 Olympics open in London.

And at a Toronto public school, the notion that enthusiasm is building was marked by the launch of the Canadian Olympic School Program. More than 600 kids between the ages of five and 12 gathered early this week in the gymnasium of Williamson Road Junior P.S. to listen to an aspiring swimmer, boxer and beach volleyball player.

It's easy to knock the Olympic Games these days.

Envisioned as a sporting festival, they've become a multi-billion dollar business enterprise. The result has been the creation of one of the world's most recognizable brands. The International Olympic Committee is a clubby group dominated by wealthy and entitled men who charge incredible sums for access to the brand and in the process profit because people feel a need to have access to the Olympic rings.

The bottom line being, the Olympics are just another, or more correctly, the supreme, professional sports franchise.

But there is a redeeming quality to the Olympics and for a brief, fleeting moment it revealed itself in that gymnasium the other day.

Co-founder of modern Games

The man who is credited with being one of the co-founders of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin had something very different in mind when he envisioned the revival of the ancient Olympics in 1896. An aristocratic educationalist and historian, de Coubertin was also a romantic who believed that something called "Olympism," a philosophy of life, could allow sport to make the world a better place.

"Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of a good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles," de Coubertin wrote.

His critics have called him idealistic and naïve. There is also little doubt that de Coubertin had the luxury of forming his philosophy from a position of entitlement. But the fact remains, he did feel sport should serve a higher purpose.

Reinforcing de Coubertin's message

At that school on that day, from the mouths of swimmer Tobas Oriwol, boxer Mary Spencer, and volleyball giant, Martin Reader, the children gathered to hear the same kind of message. Missing was the bravado that comes with predicting that gold medals will be won and the patriotic fervour that has dominated the focus of recent Olympics and in turn led to the excesses associated with winning at all costs.

Reader led a simple exercise drill and when he asked for volunteers to take part every hand in the gym shot up. He became like the Pied Piper putting the kids through their paces.

Oriwol, for his part, neglected to talk about his personal dreams of making it to his second Olympics and focused on the desire to be a part of a team. "There needs to be a mutual respect for teams to succeed," he said. "There are so many ways to help people and to be a leader."

Spencer is the chosen one for the Canadian Olympic team at the upcoming Games in London. Boxing for women will make its debut and three-times she's been the world champion. Spencer has the ability to create an instant legacy, not to mention personal wealth by winning the inaugural gold medal in her sport.

It's the chance of a lifetime.

"There's something more important than winning the world title," she opted to tell the kids. "That's helping other people. Boxers have respect for one another. I know what I've put into my training and I know my opponent has done the same thing."

These little messages find their targets. This is what the Olympic movement is supposed to be about.

Exposure and hype

Over the next six months these same children will be exposed to the hype that accompanies the advent of any Games. They have become the largest recurring spectacle on the face of the earth...an unparalleled commercial orgy on television, radio and every platform known to humanity.

In that gymnasium on that day, the children were exposed to the Olympians not as modern gladiators but as human beings who chose to express the values of the movement that de Coubertin envisioned.

"It's inspiration. It's validation," Beverly O'Brien, the school principal figured. "The Olympians exemplify the core values of perseverance and hard work that we speak to the children about every day. They are the positive proof that the values we try to instill in the children work."

Soon the London 2012 Olympics will begin to seize the headlines. There are profits to be made. No doubt budget excesses in the host city will reveal themselves and as always cheaters will be exposed. The question of how many medals Canada can win to meet the goals of Own the Podium will provoke endless discussion. It is, after all, what the Olympic franchise has become all about.

It's the way of the world.

Still, for a moment, six months out, it was important to be reminded of the movement and the romanticized purpose of the Games in the first place.

It was encouraging to hear from the disciples of de Coubertin.   

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