There's quite an uproar in Canada right now. A lot of Canadians disagree with their country’s Olympic motto: “Own the podium.” Behind the slogan is a stated desire to win more medals at the 2010 Games than any other country. Many Canadians – including former Olympians – find the approach too aggressive. This is not surprising in a country where “doing your best” has been the historical measure of success. Other Canadians, however, believe the slogan’s more aggressive tone is precisely why it’s effective. These are likely the Canadians who can’t stand the fact that their country is the only one in the history of the Games to never have won a Gold while hosting (Ottawa ’76 and Calgary ’88).
On the surface, the controversy appears to be nothing more than fodder for inconsequential chat around the Canadian water-cooler. But below the surface lies a fundamental question – for Canada as a country and for us as individuals:
What kind of success do we value? Put another way: What should success look like – A Gold medal? Or being content with doing our best?
Kevin Hall, in his recent book Aspire, recalls the story of Henry Marsh. In 1984, Henry Marsh was poised to win Gold in the 3,000-meter Steeplechase. Heading into the Olympics, he was ranked #1. For the previous seven years, he finished first at the US Championships. He was the hands-down favorite in the event. Nobody questioned it. Then, everything changed. Days before the race, he contracted a serious virus. He didn’t take medication for fear of failing Olympic drug testing. In bed is where he spent the days leading up to the race. He was in no shape to compete. Nevertheless, he willed himself onto the track on race day. In breathless anticipation, people watched the race begin. Henry was doing fine. He and another competitor led the pack… until the final stretch of the race, when his competitor pulled away, and two others passed him. Henry finished fourth – no medal.
This year’s Canadian slogan does not shed a winner’s light on Henry Marsh. But when you talk to Henry, a different story emerges. As Kevin Hall tells it: “Henry had a talk with himself before the (race) and promised that if he gave the race everything he had, then he wouldn’t be hard on himself, no matter where he placed…. (After the race,) he received thousands of sympathy cards and letters … for what (people) saw as colossal bad luck. But to Henry it was a triumph…. He had entered a race and given it everything he could give…. He saw it as a personal victory.”
Olympic Gold eluded Henry Marsh. So did Silver and Bronze. But he seemed to be at peace with the outcome. His mind was strong. And his heart was happy.
It just so happens that the following year was the best of his career. He won another US Championship and set a Steeplechase record that would not be broken for another 20 years. Today, he’s reached enviable levels of business success as a speaker, trainer, and marketer.
So, what kind of success do you value: a Gold medal regardless of circumstance or a happy heart regardless of outcome?