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What it Takes


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If your nights have been feeling empty without Survivor and Summer Olympic broadcasts from Sydney, you’re in luck. Later this month we’ll be getting our fix of both with Survivor II from Down Under.

I am weak. I was among the 50 million or so other hopeless TV pawns glued to the Survivor finale. Worse yet, I’ll admit that I actually cared who won. What was most interesting to me was the process we viewers experienced as that final episode unfolded and the previously inconceivable realization dawned: Richard-that “out-and-out-scoundrel”-might actually win. Slowly the inevitable became OK, not because we liked him any better, but because he never lost sight of his one objective: the $1 million prize. In that single-minded pursuit, his end seemed to justify his means.

Closely on the heels of Survivor came the Olympic broadcasts, with heavily scripted coverage thanks to an 18-hour tape delay. Each event was a self-contained package with encapsulated life stories and gold-medal performances by heroes such as Cathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe and Rulon Gardner. Their stories proved that the Olympics represent the highest level of sports, where dreams are realized and legends made.

Survivor merely proved that isolating a group of people long enough to strip their psyches of all niceties makes a helluva good show. I am still wondering which show displayed a truer representation of raw competition. As much as I’d like to surrender to Olympic hero worship, I suspect the truth falls somewhere between the two. If we can handle Richard winning a million bucks, then maybe we can handle some truth about sports. Nice guys don’t always win. You may not like every winner, but you have to respect a well-played game.

I think about that every time I watch an emotionally charged tennis match, and especially one with Martina Hingis, who makes nary a stab at diplomacy with her fellow players. Listening to a Hingis interview has all the charm of watching Survivor Rich stroll down the beach naked. Consequently, she has the ability to elicit a bad vibe from an entire stadium. But when she gets on the court, it’s all about the game. You feel the polarization of the crowd ease as the players are seen for their skill alone, not for their looks, their comments, their age, their smiles or lack thereof.

Ski racing is perhaps even more akin to Survivor than tennis because it’s an individual sport within a team structure. So while there has to be some level of respect and friendship, as well as a sense of team unity, it’s not a popularity contest. I was reminded of that recently upon hearing that personality conflicts had become a real concern on the women’s U.S. Ski Team last season.

Two years ago, a TV commentator admitted her frustration with covering the team because the coaches and athletes talked mostly about how well they all got along. “They’re supposed to be skiing fast, not having a love-fest,” she railed. Sure enough, this year the ski team has recruited a notorious hard-ass trainer from the Eighties-an era of strong results and strong-willed personalities-to re-establish the art of aggressive coexistence. During the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Diann Roffe did not attend Tommy Moe’s gold-medal ceremony, opting for a good night’s sleep before her super G competition. She didn’t score points with her teammates by offering the comment that she had her “own gold medal to win.” But guess who won the gold medal the next day?

The guiding principle for would-be Survivors lies in knowing what you want. Do you want to go to the beach for a month and get your face on TV, or do you want to win a million bucks? Likewise, in sport, do you want to wear a uniform and cheer on your team, or do you want to win? If you want to win, you need to lose any illusions that others-be they teammates, coaches, equipment suppliers or sponsors-will look out for your best interests. What got me onto the World Cup podium was an early lesson from the national team in self-reliannce. Ironically, it was forgetting that truth and letting my guard down that kept me from going any further. My laundry list of what-ifs can be distilled to one rule: If the end goal is most important, never give up the reins.

Survivor’s Rich talked a lot about taking control. In as much as that meant controlling other people, the concept seemed unrealistic. Likewise, skiers can’t control things like the weather and the competition. But they can and should make firm decisions about their own equipment, conditioning, rest, travel and competition schedule. Top athletes take an active role in all these issues, often working the system with their own agenda instead of staying complacent within it. The viewing public is rarely aware of these ongoing struggles because nobody takes issue with a winner. Outsiders only hear about individual choices that don’t work out. Pride is contagious to a team or a nation, but shame is quickly and deliberately focused on the individual. Do you think the Australians would still refer to Cathy Freeman as “Our Cathy” had she lost the 400 meters?

In team sports, blame that can’t be traced to the individual is aimed at the coach, and athletes are well advised to remember that their coaches are playing their own version of Survivor. As on TV, ratings count. A great coach will take control of making the best decisions for the athletes, and will also take a fall if those choices don’t produce results quickly enough. The not-so-great coaches rely on doing what makes the team-and themselves-look better for the moment. That means making choices and taking chances that aren’t in the best long-term interests of every athlete every time. You can find out what kind of coach you have the hard way, or play it safe and make it a purely professional relationship from the start.

This is not to say that all winners are scoundrels or that all coaches are spineless. But neither are they all role models. I hate being burdened by cynicism toward every rosy profile of a pure-hearted champion. But it is an inescapable byproduct of my experience, much like what the public is starting to feel in this post-nandrolone, post-steroidal, post-EPO sports world. With every triumphant finish there is the question in the back of your mind: “Will he still be smiling when the lab report comes back?”

One of the questions on the Survivor application was this: What would you not do for a million dollars? Perhaps that ought to be a required question for the next Olympics, too. I dare say Rich would have answered that honestly, and his answer would’ve been much different than mine. But let’s not forget who won the million bucks.

Edie Thys raced in the ’88 and ’92 winter Olympics, finishing .6 seconds from a bronze medal in 1988. She can be reached at [email protected]