Olympics captivate world, including Lansing, MSU
Competitors in the men’s 40m hurdles take off from their blocks under a stormy sky during the Summer Olympic Games on Monday, August 6, 2012, in London, England. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
There are few scenes more captivating, emotional and awe-inspiring in sports than watching athletes stand on the podium at the Olympics and hearing their respective national anthem played as they receive their medals.
Every four years, the globe unites in the spirit and tradition of the largest athletic competition in the world. The Olympics are where legends are made, dreams are crushed and an entire legacy can be built or destroyed based on hundredths of a second.
The elite athletes aren’t the only ones putting in years of dedication and hard work, however; it’s almost a decadelong process for the cities and government officials in host cities to prepare for the games.
The gold standard
It’s no secret Olympians are some of the finest athletes in the world, but before they reached that track, swimming pool, basketball court or other venue, it took years of preparation and training. In most circumstances, these athletes have been competing and working toward reaching the Olympics their entire lives.
Years of rigorous and intense training prior to the games leave athletes at risk of injury and burning out prior to the games, which are the athletes’ two biggest concerns, kinesiology professor Jim Pivarnik said in an email.
USA's Jordyn Wieber performs her floor routine in the women's gymnastics team final during the Summer Olympic Games in London, England, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. (Vernon Bryant/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
“Track and field and swimming and gymnastics (were) all very competitive … in their cases when only two or three are chosen based solely on the trial meets,” Pivarnik said. “Then (they) hope they have enough in the tank to peak again a month later.”
Some athletes have to fight complacency, especially in the case of many U.S. teams such as swimming and track and field, MSU swimming and diving coach Matt Gianiodis said.
“The goal is actually competing at the meet, not getting to the meet, so I think that would be one big adjustment,” he said. “It would be easy for somebody to just take a deep breath because they made the team and not realize that there’s a long way to go.”
The pressure on athletes due to the timing of the event and level of competition is immense, Gianiodis said. He said the only other athletic event similar to the Olympics would be the World Cup because of the global appeal and opportunity once every four years.
Other than the absolute top-notch athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps or sprinter Usain Bolt, most Olympians generally have one shot at competing in the games and have to try to make the most of it, Gianiodis said.
“It’s not like you can wait until next year to win an Olympic gold medal,” he said. “You’d have to wait four years from now, and so much can happen in four years to you and to the people whom you’re competing with, or the people whom you’d potentially compete against four years from now.”
Mind over matter
Everyone can see the breathtaking performances in the arenas and the prime physique of the athletes as they perform — the bulging muscles; the lightning speed; the impeccable techniques. But what is commonly overlooked in athletics at the highest level is the mental strength these Olympians have developed in their training.
Consistency is critical, and balancing their normal routines with acknowledging the excitement and scope of the Olympics can be one of the biggest mental hurdles for athletes, kinesiology professor Dan Gould said.
“One athlete described it … like being a kid in a candy store, and the secret is to taste the candy, which means to enjoy the excitement of the games and the opening ceremonies, but not eat so much candy that you get a stomachache,” Gould said.
Gould, who is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, called coaches the unsung heroes for Olympians, as they don’t receive a medal or much recognition but play critical roles in making a unique situation as normal as possible. Whether it’s running interference so that the athlete is unaware of a problem or conflict, or even removing the athlete or team from the Olympic Village, which slowly transforms into a huge party as the games continue on.
While working with the 1998 U.S. Olympic ski team, Gould said the coaches and officials decided to let the team stay in the village for the first few days, but removed them to a secure location prior to the event, and then allowed them to return after their competition concluded.
Pressure affects each athlete in a different way, too, Gould said. He said there are some, similar to Phelps or Michael Jordan, who thrive under the intense burn of the spotlight, and then there are others who crumble under pressure by feeling the weight of an entire country on their shoulders.
“Sometimes we see the highly confident sprinter, but a lot of our research shows a lot of the elite athletes do get nervous,” Gould said. “They’ve learned how to deal with their nerves; or if they choke a little, they rebound quicker than the rest of us. So there’s kind of a mental toughness that goes with it.”
The host city for the games is chosen seven years prior to the competition year, but in most cases, the process of bidding for the Olympics can last more than two years, Eva Kassens-Noor, assistant professor of urban and transport planning, said.
Once a city is awarded the bid, work begins immediately on building and upgrading infrastructure, including arenas and transportation systems, throughout the city in preparation for the games, Kassens-Noor said.
“You have a different city, (and) you have a completely different city for three weeks,” she said. “You have all the international visitors, (and) you have hundreds of thousands of additional people in the city. It’s all run on an Olympic schedule, versus a normal day-to-day schedule.”
In most cities, the Olympic Village is built from scratch and sold off to companies that commonly turn the facilities into apartments and residential housing, she said.
After the Beijing Games in 2008, much more emphasis is placed on strategic planning for host cities regarding legacy infrastructure — meaning facilities that are built to stay around for years after the Olympics, Kassens-Noor said. In Beijing, the famous Beijing National Stadium, more commonly known as the “Bird’s Nest,” today sits vacant and in terrible shape. Chinese officials planned poorly regrading infrastructure, and many facilities from 2008 are decrepit or left to rot away.
“It can be an albatross to the city … if it’s not done right, the economic impact (is) huge,” Gould said. “(In) London, the security is billions of dollars, (and) the roads (and) the infrastructure work is billions of dollars. So it can be a huge gain for the country, but if they overbuild … you can be paying for it for years to come.”