One of my favorite Olympic success stories is about a big loser, and it gives me some ideas about learning models for my students.
During the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, I was inspired by a Moroccan cross-country skier. Morocco has never been known as a Nordic skiing powerhouse. Nonetheless, the country had an Olympic contender. He faced a Norwegian competitor nicknamed "The Terminator." Norway, on the other hand, is very much a Nordic skiing powerhouse.
At the start of the race, the Moroccan simply stepped aside and allowed the fiercer medal contenders to pass him by. He then skied his best. Although he finished the course hours after The Terminator, he won "his race." Perhaps he didn't belong in competition at the Olympic level, or deserve the label "Olympic athlete," but I have to admire his tenacity and gumption-a more fitting Olympic spirit than Bode Miller's ignominious, but much touted, performance.
The front pages of Olympic reporting these past two weeks have focused mostly on celebrity athletes. There was figure skater Michelle Kwan's agonizing story. The five-time world champion pulled out of gold medal contention at the Turin Olympics because of injury. It was a move that made room for younger contenders on the US team. Perhaps we can say that Michelle won by not competing, by realizing that to go on would be about personal stoicism rather than team aspiration. It must have been a torturous couple of days leading to her decision, and she showed great grace with the outcome.
Other headlines have been as much about fraternal squabbles among American speed skaters as about their athleticism.
But then you find a story on the back pages like Anne Abernathy, the 50-something competing in the luge in her sixth winter Olympics? Known as "Grandma Luge," she hails from the Virgin Islands-again, not a real sledding Mecca (see www.grandmaluge.com). But she shows tenacity and spirit in her pursuit of her dream.
My favorite Moroccan Nordic skier and Grandma Luge from the tropics are good object-lessons for kids-as important a role model as The Terminator or Bode Miller and other medal contenders or winners-because they exemplify an accurate sense of their abilities, self-denial, and perseverance in the face of adversity. These are the great qualities of Olympians, regardless of their medals. This is the Olympic mettle that anyone can win.
You can win an Olympic medal by crossing the finish line first, by being judged best, or by being hyped, media attention being an embedded part of the contest in most sports these days. ("That's just Bode being Bode.") But two things stand out that might relate to a positive message for kids. You need to compete at the right level, both in order to win and in order for the challenge to be fair. And you need to ski, or luge, or skate "your own race." In this regard, you win just by competing. It's how you develop intellectual "muscle" and medal-caliber performances.
To push the educational point a little further, quality learning experiences gradually raise children's expectation for what they can accomplish, providing them the feedback that develops self-judgment. This should involve both familiar and unfamiliar experiences, which will lead to resiliency: each child's durable sense that he or she is a powerful learner and capable of coping with the unknown. Teachers want to inspire lofty personal goals without creating unfair competition with a personally inappropriate lofty ideal. We have to be sure that kids are learning how to "play their own game," and that the expectations they create for themselves are ones they truly value and can achieve-i.e., the right muscles for their "sport!" That's why the Olympics are such a valuable classroom.
As to the media hype: Maybe some day our culture will mature and realize that there is such a thing as bad publicity, especially for an audience of future Olympians.
Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine, Maine.