Monday, March 1, 2010

Own the Podium?

I watched the Olympics as often as I could, held my breath for each Canadian athlete, cheered madly for their victories, teared up when our anthem was sung - all fourteen times - and for the endless replays. Yet at the same time, like so many Canadians, I ask if it's worth it. It's a hard question to ask in the midst of our collective euphoria. I don't just mean the money. What I've been thinking about is the message of "Own the Podium." It seems to me that we don't fund athletics so Canada can rack up medals; we fund athletics because it promotes a healthy lifestyle, joy in effort, and the pursuit of excellence, a mindset that transfers - get good at something and you can get good at anything. For those of us watching, the stories of effort, excellence, passion and commitment can inspire us to find our own dream. Yet when people ask, "Has the program been a failure?" I would emphatically argue yes! It isn't a failure because we don't have the most medals. I thought it was a failure when I heard speed skater Denny Morrison, expected to "own the podium," say, after a ninth place finish, I let my team down, my country down. How could he let anyone down when he pursued excellence through rigorous training, giving up much, giving his all? How can less than a second on a given day make him a failure? What is the message to the hundreds of extraordinary athletes who continue to pursue their passion without hope of winning medals? How can "Own the Podium" be a success if we see an athlete as a "failure" who doesn't step onto the podium? Of course, now we are lauding the program as a "success" because, despite the lower-than-expected medal haul, we won the most gold. But I'd argue the success comes from providing much-needed funding. If we believe in continuing to fund elite athletes, then call the program "Own the Dream." Gold medals will follow, but in the second place, only because it's the inevitable result of funding passionate committed individuals.

It might seem like a hair-splitting argument, but here's what I'm what I'm worried about. First, this program is testament to our continued belief, despite overwhelming research against it, that the way to encourage excellence is to reward it. (Did you know that each gold medalist gets $20,000 cash payment, a silver $15,000 and a bronze $10,000?) But, ironically, the opposite happens. You take the joy and passion out of the performance and it becomes work. Worse, I think, collectively we tend to confuse the prize with the goal. It's everywhere. In education, our focus on improving student achievement is the "own the podium" of education: our "gold medal" is improved marks and graduation rates. We acclaim schools that have met "improvement targets." It strikes me that perhaps we should focus on learning, not improvement, not achievement. If we focus on (and fund) what we educate children for - to foster confident, creative, empathetic, joyous learners who contribute positively to our society - then the extraordinary, passionate, exciting, learning that takes place every day in our schools led by educators who give it all they've got - will inevitably lead to improvement.

Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images