What are the factors that elevate a performance, and a person, beyond the everyday?
This column makes an attempt to discern the elements that propel individuals to greatness, both at the Olympics and in their everyday lives . . .
WHAT MAKES A PERSON GREAT?
We like to say we’re watching the athletes “perform”. It almost sounds as if we’re at the ballet, or perhaps a symphony concert, when in reality it’s nothing like that at all. There’s something electric, quite unfathomable, about watching that remarkable conjunction of mind, body and technique coming together as someone breaks a world record to seize gold.
Physique explains a lot. Someone born with big feet, or a particular body shape is gets a head start in swimming that others, without such genetic advantage, can only dream of. The best training helps too. When our team failed to win a gold at Montreal in1976 the Australian Institute of Sport was established, and it’s had a vital role in nurturing winners.
Victory requires, however, something more than just inheritance and training. Look at the winning women’s 4 by 100 meter relay team. Melanie Schlanger, 25, 176 cm tall, the girl who forged a note in grade five to get out of swimming class, ‘anchored’ the team brilliantly, even though two years ago she’d failed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. She’d ‘given up’ on swimming after the training sessions where she’d crawl out of the water only to collapse at the side of the pool. Then, after 10 months off, she returned and found she could swim again, so becoming a doctor’s had to wait a little bit longer.
Or Alicia Coutts. Exactly the same height as Schlanger but a year younger, she overcame surgical complications and two bowel operations to could play her part in the team. And Cate Campbell. Born in Malawi and ten centimetres taller than Schlanger, the 20 year-old battled glandular fever and viral fatigue that also put her out of competition for a year. Her younger sister’s also swimming for Australia at the Olympics: is determination hereditary? Or the young kid, 18 year-old Brittany Elmslie, only team member of the relay team to swim (and win) in both the heats and the final.
And how about those other three swimmers who blitzed in the heats, defeating their competitors, setting-up the golden team for eventual victory? Sure, they share the gold but for them it was just quiet achievement. No need to boast about impending triumph or being a speeding missile – victory simply represented supreme personal accomplishment. It wasn’t about saying, “up yours” or “suck on that, faggots” to anyone else. Real achievement isn’t big talk; it’s quiet and studied determination. You can’t win before you’ve won.
It’s no wonder that we’ve been admiring such performances since ancient times. Ever since the Greeks first gathered at Olympia to watch humans overcoming the limiting bonds of the physical, the idea of elite achievement has inspired us. What is it that enables an athlete to harness sheer, utter, determination before surging through to touch the wall? What can explain the way neurones fire in someone’s brain to achieve the seemingly impossible?
We celebrate some successes with gold medals, although the deserving don’t always get to star. My particular award goes to my father, Ron, who’s just 165 cm tall. Nevertheless back in 1956 he was one of the ten fastest runners in the world over 6 miles (10,000 meters), in between attending university and holding down a full-time job. Although selected for the Australian team, he never made it to the track. He ripped his muscles apart during hurdles training. But that willpower never departs: decades later he still managed to break the world record for the (over 60) 2,000 metres steeplechase.
But of course it’s not just sport that requires grit and determination: everyone has their own set of hurdles. For some people, simply getting through the day deserves a gold-medal. Overcoming physical or mental disability is remarkable, regardless of recognition. Others, understandably, aren’t prepared to make the supreme effort necessary to star. That’s OK too, because it’s their life. Nonetheless, it is right and fitting to admire and encourage accomplishment; especially, and particularly, those who achieve because they believe in something.
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a meeting with Morgan Tsvangirai, hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Although he’s Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, the country’s President, Robert Mugabe, controls the military and remains his arch-enemy. As he spoke over lunch you could almost reach out and touch the fierce determination that’s propelling Tsvangirai in his remarkable fight for democratic change in that country. Yet it was this same fire that once drove Mugabe as he fought to overthrow the Rhodesian regime in the 1970’s.
Ay, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare might say. The bard’s heroes all possess both greatness and a fatal flaw. Often the very same characteristic that enables them to achieve so much is the same one that contains the germ of failure. It’s this duality that makes his tragedies so fascinating. Not many people ever understand their own limitations.
After bringing order and giving laws to Athens, the dictator Cleon sailed away, exiling himself for a decade from the city-state. He didn’t trust himself to retain power. He realised he’d become a real tyrant. That’s why the United States won’t now allow a President to hold office for more than two terms. Interestingly Schlanger, like both Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, comes from Nambour in Queensland. Perhaps they put something in the Sunshine Coast’s water. Nobody doubts Rudd’s popularity or determination, but that’s not the same as accepting he’s the right person to be PM again. Some characteristics are embedded too deeply in our personality to ever change, and that’s what government MP’s are worried about at the moment.
There’s no doubt shifting to Rudd would provide a quick boost for Labor, but it’s a mistake to think he was removed two years ago simply because the polls were wobbling. The problem was far deeper and went to elements at the core of his personality. That’s why some in the party still refuse to have him back. Sometimes those who are easy and malleable seem unable to achieve spectacular things.
That’s not the case, of course, with my wonderful father. Or those marvellous women who swam so wonderfully over 400 glorious metres thrilled the country on Sunday.