KIERAN SHANNON: Learning sport’s real life lessons

Listening to Allison Wagner last week speak about the torment she suffered for many years after finishing second to Michelle Smith, we couldn’t help but think how there was more than one swimmer in that Atlanta pool 20 years ago who sadly lost perspective on what sport is supposed to be all about.

Wagner was speaking to Newstalk’s Ger Gilroy from the Web Summit in Lisbon, where she and fellow Olympian swimmer Nikki Dryden were campaigning to clean up international athletics. Their campaign is as admirable and important. Twenty years on from Atlanta and the testing of athletes at Rio was so haphazard as to be a token gesture. There is still too much doping and cheating going on, and too many clean athletes still being wronged.

Regardless of how successful their campaign is, however, no athlete should allow themselves to be as affected as Wagner was.

In her interview to Gilroy, she mentioned how she lost her college scholarship and how her coach did not give her a badly-needed break on account of not finishing first. She’d suffer from anorexia, then bulimia.

“I also lost my faith hard work really paid off. For the next 15 years, I’d say, I didn’t really dedicate myself to anything… It destroyed me — and I let it destroy me for a long time.”

The second part of that statement cannot be underestimated. Plenty of other athletes have been wronged and cheated through the years. From this country alone, you need only think of Olive Loughnane, Derval O’Rourke, and Sonia O’Sullivan. When they lost out on medals, they did not let it destroy or define them. The reality is much of Wagner’s problems happened before she ever encountered Smith.

In 1999, on the eve of Smith’s appeal hearing at the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne, Paul Howard, then a sportswriter with The Sunday Tribune, visited and interviewed the three athletes who finished second to Smith in Atlanta, including Wagner.

In that sitdown in Florida, she would explain how even in her school days she was socially isolated because of her swimming; instead of mixing with classmates at lunchtime, she’d find an empty classroom and fall asleep on one of the desks to recover from her early-morning pool session. Unhealthy eating patterns were also formed in those years.

A bagel in the car on the way to the pool in the evening would constitute dinner. In the year leading up to Atlanta she considered not eating at all.

When she saw what her roommate ate over lunch at a pre-Olympic training camp, she instantly thought she was eating far too much herself and ended up losing seven pounds of muscle mass.

She didn’t have a proper support system. She was pushed too hard by her coach, admitting she didn’t taper for two years. “I couldn’t think for myself,” she’d tell Howard. “My coach became like my father. And I would never think anything was good unless he said it was.”

What kind of coach doesn’t give you a break after you medal at an Olympics, especially when you’re clearly showing signs of burnout? How do you lose an athletic scholarship upon being among the world’s top two? More than Michelle Smith’s training environment was morally questionable the few years either side of Atlanta.

Marianne Limpert also finished second to Smith in Atlanta, and sat down with Howard three years later. Initially she, too, was devastated upon not winning gold.

All over Atlanta there was a Nike slogan, coined by some cold timid soul who themselves had obviously never been in the arena. ‘You don’t win silver,’ it said. ‘You lose gold.’

“Every time I got off the subway,” Limpert would tell Howard, “that poster was staring at me. I was like, ‘Nike, I hate you.’”

The following February, she suffered a physical breakdown. Again it came from exhaustion: college, swimming, travel, not eating properly. Except in her case, the support was there for her. Her coach told her to take a break. So she did, and drew a line under Atlanta.

She moved to Vancouver to finish her degree. She would win gold at the subsequent Commonwealth and Pan American Games. Silver was a colour though she’d come to appreciate too.

When friends would tell her Smith’s gold should be hers, she said she didn’t want it.

“I kind of like my silver,” she’d tell Howard. “It’s part of who I am now. I don’t need to be the best anymore, just the best I can be. If that’s only good enough to get me last, then I’ll still be happy. I could lie awake at night, torturing myself, wondering who or who might not be cheating. But I don’t think about them. I look in the mirror and know who I am.”

That is what sport is supposed to be about. Your true opponent is supposed to be yourself. Continuously you enter situations running the risk of being wronged, even though sport is supposed to strive to minimise the chance of being wronged.

It can be difficult. Society — us — can be a lot like whoever came up with that Darwinian Nike tagline that tormented Limpert. We don’t want people resorting to cheating but with our derision or under- appreciation for those who don’t win, we inadvertently facilitate it.

At Atlanta, Howard would write about what happened just after Barcelona. McCullough and Carruth were paraded around Dublin Airport with their medals; the other athletes, including Smith, were ushered away, not worthy of any public visibility or acclaim. It wasn’t lost on him, and he was sure it wasn’t lost on Smith.

But other things shouldn’t be lost on any athlete, including Wagner. Sport, we’re told, is supposed to teach us life lessons, how to cope with winning, how to cope with disappointment.

It’s supposed to be who you become along the journey, not what you get when you reach the destination. There’s a strong likelihood even if Wagner had reached her Ithaca, she’d have been troubled and disappointed, a bit like David Duval found it so hollow upon winning the 2001 British Open.

Upon Olive Loughnane’s retirement, I asked her about what sense of injustice she felt being a clean athlete beaten by people who had doped.

“The way I looked at it was I didn’t care whether they were clean or dirty. I was going to maximise my potential.

“If I did, I could medal. My job was to beat them regardless of what they did. If I could control [something], I would take the necessary action. If something was an uncontrollable, I couldn’t waste my energy and time over it. To me, that [competitors’ doping] was an uncontrollable.”

In an interview she gave to a local university project six months after Atlanta, Wagner admitted there were controllables she could have controlled better. She would have relaxed more. She wouldn’t have lost as much weight. She’d have tapered more.

“I still thought I could have won, even if she [Smith] was on [something]. My best time would have beat her in both races. I did not really see how I could not have won if I had done my best times.”

Maybe that as much as anything nagged at Wagner so much. She didn’t do herself justice, as much as she didn’t get justice. Who can blame her? She only turned 19 that week. She didn’t know better, though others should have.

We wish her the best in her new journey. Hopefully she appreciates this time whether she and Dryden win or not, she’s a winner for even trying.


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