Rethinking What It Means to be The Best in the World

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“Can you be the best in the world without cheating?”

It was 2011. I was in graduate school, sitting around a table in a nondescript conference room with a handful of my classmates when visiting professor Verner Møller posed the question.

Møller wasn’t an amateur, he was an expert. He’d spent his academic career studying doping in sport. He’d tagged along at the Tour de France, regaling us stories of cyclists getting up in the middle of the night and taking a spin on the bike because their blood was so thick from doping that they had to keep it moving. He was writing a book with disgraced cyclist Michael Rasmussen. And his answer to the question he posited seemed to be a resounding “no.”

I pushed back. After all, I was training with Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile, who was near the top in the world at that time. During training camps, I lived beside him and fellow Olympian, Moises Joseph. They were striving for the top and they were clean. Møller wouldn’t budge. He was adamant. I wrote a 10-page paper outlining why he was wrong for an assignment. It received a B.

Well over a decade latter, what I want to discuss in this post is how our views on elite success are starting to change, in sport and life.

When we think of the best of the best, we may assume nefarious qualities. In some sports, perhaps such as cycling, we assume the best must be bending the rules, if not breaking them entirely. In others, we assume the best must be over-the-top obsessive, willing to do whatever it takes to win. In the research, this is reflected in the Goldman Dilemma, which found that a surprisingly large number of athletes would choose to take a drug that both guaranteed an Olympic Gold, but also death within five years.

But after this weekend’s World Athletic Championships, I’m happy to report two things: Dr. Møller was wrong, and athletes are forging a new relationship with success.

In the men’s 1,500m British athlete Josh Kerr stormed to victory over the final half-lap of the race, defeating proverbial favorite Jacob Ingebrigtsen. Kerr ran with gusto and confidence to pull off the upset. He was meticulous in his preparation, going so far as having a nutritionist plan out all of his meals for the months leading up to championships.

Here’s the reason I feel confident in saying that Kerr proves Møller wrong. Kerr’s coach is a man by the name of Danny Mackey. I’ve known Danny for quite a few years now, thanks in part because he was one of the original whistleblowers on the doping case against the Nike Oregon Project that I was a part of. I’ve watched him put his job on the line standing up for his principles. So much so that the head of Nike Global director of athletics once threatened to kill him at the US track and field championships.

If there’s any man on the planet who is going to stick to his values and not cross any ethical lines, it’s Danny. So I see it as a sign of hope that you can be the best in the world and do things the right way. Mackey is a student of the sport while trying to coach holistically. Ironically, years ago he told me, “In our sport, we define success too narrowly: did you make the team and did you medal? I want to expand that definition so one race isn’t the be-all-end-all.” It looks like such an approach is paying off.

In the pole vault, we learned a similar lesson. After 4 hours of jumping in 85-degree heat, America’s Katie Moon and Australia’s Nina Kennedy were tied. They’d both cleared a touch over 16 feet and failed three times on the next height. They were faced with a choice: Share the gold, or go into a jump-off at lower heights to determine a clear winner. They chose to share gold.

They both got some pushback on social media, with questioning as to why they wouldn’t have a jump-off to determine a true winner. Social media trolls called them cowards, others said they didn’t understand competition.

(Oh, the irony of a keyboard warrior lecturing someone on competition, someone who is in the arena and one of the best in her event in history, as an Olympic champion and two-time world champion.)

Moon responded, “Part of the reason we’ve reached the highest level is by listening to our bodies, and knowing our limitations. Sharing glory was just as good as earning it outright.” And while her whole response is worth a read, her last line is magnificent:

“Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a ‘win at all costs’ mentality to have a champions mindset.”

Too often, we hold onto a narrow, misguided view of what it takes to be the best. Too often we hold on to obsessive, single-minded, selfish, win at all costs. We cast off those who do it in another way, claiming they aren’t cut-throat enough to be competitive.

We need to update our views of what it means to be competitive. Yes, you have to be dedicated and competitive, and often meticulous in your preparation. But you don’t have to be a jerk. You don’t have to cheat or put winning as the only thing that matters to be the best in the world.

Steve

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