The agony and ecstasy of the Olympic Games

As Aussie Olympian Gracie Elvin writes, the biggest sporting event on the planet offers soaring highs, but also crushing lows.

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In her first article as part of a new column for CyclingTips, former Aussie pro Gracie Elvin reflects on her experience at the 2016 Rio Olympics and how the world’s biggest sporting event offers both soaring highs and crushing lows.

It’s the eve of the 2020(1) Tokyo Olympic Games which got me thinking about all the hopes and dreams of every athlete that get realised or crushed in an instant. Arguably, the Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world and the biggest goal for most athletes to just compete in, let alone dare dream of a gold medal at. What is the cost for such an event on an individual scale? How is this enhanced even further during a pandemic?

I was extremely fortunate to be selected for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The course did not particularly suit me, and I was dropped from the national funding* only months prior because I was deemed unlikely for selection. For me, participation in the Games was a bonus, a reward for doing well in the sport that I loved. I had other big goals in cycling and being selected for the Olympic team was a by-product of my efforts.

Don’t get me wrong though, I still really wanted to be an Olympian. I worked very hard that year. I was the first Aussie woman to podium in the newly titled Women’s WorldTour (formerly called World Cups), the day after I was taken off that funding.

The selection process for Rio was stressful even though it ultimately went my way. Being strung along until the very last selection race was incredibly draining and I believe my peak was in that period, not at the Games. And then my personal spot was appealed and I had to wait another two weeks for final confirmation of my selection following the appeal hearing.

Once I was finally in the village it hit me: there were thousands of the world’s best athletes in one place, but an equal number or even more also deserved to be there. Being an Olympian didn’t mean you were solely at the pinnacle of your sport – it meant you shared that top step with many other athletes who were not as lucky as you to get the green light. I understood that I wasn’t just there for myself but had to honour the whole experience for all the other women that also could have been in my spot. Their dreams were crushed the day they found out they were not selected. 

Life in the Olympic village was amazing and something I’m sad that the athletes this year won’t get to experience as much. Even better was the ability to go and watch other sports and cheer on fellow Aussies. Wearing a new outfit every day from the insane amount of team swag you get is super cool, and people-watching in the massive dining hall is very fun too. It was athlete wonderland, but still there were plenty of long faces of disappointed competitors that didn’t win a medal, which also made me realise how glad I was that I had enjoyed my journey to get there.

You could easily tell those who had put way too much emphasis on the Olympics as their only life goal – they stood out compared to those who were there with a more balanced appreciation. Even if it had lived up to their expectations, it was all over too fast. It was such a stark contrast to see unhappy people in one of the happiest places on earth.

In a sport where the course changes every time, luck must be on your side. There will be many athletes who will never get a shot at a medal or even to compete at the Olympics, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, or even be able to win a national title, all because of what course is offered. Even the climate plays a part – a big Classics rider will always struggle in a midsummer Olympic race in the middle of the day. In cycling we have dozens of opportunities every year to race and to win, but most riders are still dreaming of those pinnacle titles. 

Now for the topical, tricky question: what about COVID-19? The Olympic selection process has already been unfairly compromised for many athletes. Some in contention were unlucky to have their whole season disrupted because they suffered with the virus and didn’t get the chance to even be considered. Some selected athletes will be pulled at the 11th hour because they test positive.

Two fundamental Olympic principles that come to mind are fair play and social responsibility. It’s hard not to think that these Games will be some of the most unfair, and least socially responsible. I hope that there is adequate mental health care for the athletes, and that Japan’s state of emergency isn’t stretched any further than it already is.

I don’t have an answer to the question about whether this Olympic Games should be going ahead. But I did want to highlight the many difficulties that athletes face regardless of a pandemic, and when one is thrown in the mix how much harder it can be. We only see the highlight reels, but behind the scenes even the most successful athletes are fighting their own battles.

The overall anxieties of individuals would be much higher this year, so let us find some empathy for those who are competing, some compassion for those who are not, and for any athlete in Tokyo reading this: no one will get to experience what you will through your eyes – appreciate and enjoy every second, and wear your mask!


*Australia’s national funding has evolved over the years, but generally about six riders are allocated a set amount of money from the Australian Sports Commission via AusCycling if they have achieved benchmark results or have the potential to podium at upcoming World Championships, Commonwealth Games, or Olympic Games. It feels good to be in this group, but it’s a blow to your confidence when you are removed.


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