At their core, the Olympics are a testament to the competitive spirit. However, amidst all of the celebration surrounding individual and team triumphs currently underway in Pyeongchang, American luger Chris Mazdzer has revealed that generosity and friendship also have a role to play in the proceedings.
Following his weekend competition, Mazdzer told reporters that an unnamed Russian luger had shared his sled with him while training in Latvia before the Olympic games, reported The Washington Post.
Mazdzer credits the kind gesture as helping him snap out of a slump and become the first ever American medalist in men’s single luge. At the end of the Olympics opening weekend, he ended up on the podium in the silver-medal position.
Mazdzer’s slump came at the start of 2018, as he trained in Latvia and saw himself significantly dropping in the world rankings. Apparently other racers noticed what he was going through. Mazdzer was approached by the Russian luger, and through “some broken language of smiles and handshakes and high-fives,” the Russian convinced the American to take his sled.
“The Russian racer felt his own Olympic hopes were fading . . . but he wanted to help the American veteran do his best,” said The Washington Post. Mazdzer was unsure if he understood the generous offer from his Russian competitor: “It’s like, ‘This is your competitive advantage; this is everything. Are you sure? . . . [He’s] like, ‘Yeah, just do it.'”
Ultimately, Mazdzer welcomed the generosity of his Russian counterpart. Though he didn’t end up using the sled in competition, the event reminded Mazdzer that, “[W]e all look out for each other. We all want the best for each other . . . I think what it shows is that we do care about each other. There is a human connection that we have, that crosses countries, that cross cultures, and sport is an amazing way to accomplish that.”
Different sports have different cultures, but each culture leaves an indelible mark on the athletes who are formed in it. As Mazdzer said of his initial confusion at the offer, he didn’t think luge was a sport where head-to-head competitors would go to such lengths to help one another. He may have underestimated how the sport’s culture of competition had also bred an environment of care and respect.
Sport indeed is one important sphere of what James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson call a “moral ecology” in The Content of Their Character, a new publication from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. They explain that “all social institutions rest upon distinctive ideals, beliefs, obligations, prohibitions, and commitments—many implicit and some explicit—and these are rooted in, and reinforced by, well-established social practices.”
The practice of training side-by-side with Olympic competitors is formative. The generosity that Mazdzer’s Russian friend showed is formative. The culture of a training community shapes an athlete’s identity—whether in Little League or training for the Olympics.
The Positive Coaching Alliance has some good resources on how to incorporate character and identity formation into one’s work as a youth coach. And even if your athletes never compete in the Games, they can learn to have the character of an Olympian.