Ollie Cook racing with 3 teammates

Diary of an Olympian: The important thing is not to win, but to take part

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Continuing our series, “Diary of an Olympian”, Ollie Cook shares another insight with us.

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games.

I am involved, alongside my training, with a brilliant international sports, not-for-profit organisation called The True Athlete Project (TAP). Their vision is to use the power of sport as a positive force for both personal and community development. TAP runs a number of really exciting initiatives, working with schools, teams, and national governing bodies, to help place sport within a wider framework of performance, well-being and community engagement. But, it is their flagship global mentoring project which has been what I have recently been involved in. This initiative pairs more senior athletes, who are either still competing or have recently retired, as mentors, with younger, up and coming athletes as mentees. This year’s global mentoring project features 68 athletes, representing 33 different sports in 10 different countries around the world.

For me being involved in The True Athlete Project is something quite different from my day job as a rower. It is an often quoted cliche that we ought to see sport as a journey and not just a destination in itself. But, with TAP the cliche couldn’t be more true and is central to the idea of what it means to be an athlete. Namely, that striving to win without a true appreciation of the real value of sport is ultimately quite a hollow undertaking. As Irv Blitzer says in Cool Runnings; “A Gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

The idea that we shouldn’t define ourselves in totality by our successes or our failures is something that I’ve only come to appreciate more recently.

I remember thinking in 2016 that if I was just selected for the Olympic Games in Rio I would be able to be happy with myself. I had previously spent two seasons as the spare in the GB Team, having not been selected for a world championships since 2013. Therefore, without realising it, I had a lot of self-affirmation riding on selection in 2016. Looking back I was seeing my training and selection through the prism of a destination – that it would only be worth it if the destination itself was reached.

In many ways, the destination now is still the same. And, I still desperately want to represent Great Britain on the highest stage. Nonetheless, being involved with The True Athlete Project reminds me that the true value of being an athlete is to chase a dream while being surrounded by incredible teammates, coaches, and staff, all chasing the same thing with me. I remember seeing the quote by de Coubertin when I was younger and not understanding why he said that winning was not the most important thing. It is only now in my second Olympic cycle that I have come to understand the wisdom in those words.