The heart of the matter
Last weekend in beautiful Lake Placid (host city of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games), I attended my first USA Luge Association board meeting as a newly minted volunteer independent board member.
I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work within virtually every level of the Olympic Movement these past 20-plus years. So when offered, I leapt at the chance to work at the national governing body (national federations for my non-USA friends) level of sport, as this is the one area in which I have little to no experience. I realized quite quickly that this is where I should have started my Olympic journey many years ago.
Here is the most important lesson reinforced from the weekend: The Olympic Movement is a fragile, elegant and eternal dream knitted together by thousands of people who will never see the limelight, whose names will never be mentioned in a press release and who may never even attend a games, who toil countless hours with very little resources, who will never sit in a T-3 car or complain about “important things” such as receiving the desired games accreditation or gaining access to the IOC hotel (or lounge). No, these are the people who constantly wage an exhausting, invisible, seemingly never-ending battle to keep the lights on and train the athletes at the local level.
This is the real Olympic Movement.
The Olympic mantra states that “Athletes are the heart of the Games.” That is correct; they truly are, and forever will be. But it is the organizations and the people working within them at the bottom rung of the Olympic pyramid, the national federation level, who are the Olympic Movement’s soul.
As I sat through a day of meetings focused on the long-term survival of luge in the United States (remember, Olympic sport in the USA receives no government funding), I was surrounded by no fewer than four Olympic medalists and World Cup champions.
Each of these people were giving their time, energy and, yes, their hearts and souls to the cause of the sport they loved and that changed their lives. Was there a “prima donna” among them? No. Were they living or relying on past accomplishments or success? No. Was anyone taking credit for anyone else’s work or accomplishments, deluding themselves or others of their own importance, exaggerating their experience or skills? No. Was I moved? Yes – beyond words, actually.
Admittedly, my own Olympic experience has been a charmed one, and I am very thankful for it. But this past weekend in tiny, humble yet magnificent Lake Placid did more to open my eyes to the beauty and magnificence of the Olympic ideal than any gold medal finish or opening or closing ceremony I’ve ever witnessed. Why? Because I saw sacrifice, desire, honor, persistence and that grandest English verb of all – hope – manifest right before my eyes.
I have no idea where my volunteer luge odyssey will end or what it will accomplish, but I can tell you this: Working alongside these good, honest people who view their sport through the lens of love instead of personal gain is exactly what I needed to see, hear and feel.
So the next time you receive that inevitable call or email request to donate a few dollars to grassroots sports, dig deep, my friends, dig very deep, for without a solid financial foundation at its core (and you would be very surprised at how much impact just a few dollars can make), future Olympic podiums will be absent of the young men and women who inspire us with wonder, who make us cry with pride and who challenge us all to be better than we really are.
Terrence Burns is a managing director of Teneo Strategy, based in Atlanta. He served on the winning Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 bids, the Russia 2018 World Cup bid, the bids for golf and wrestling’s return to the Olympic Games program, the 2013 Kazan Universiade Games bid and many others. Mr. Burns is also the former president and founder of Helios Partners, where he began and managed the firm’s bid advisory practice for 10 years.