Own the lectern

I had asthma as a kid. And a lazy eye. And a glorious lack of speed, strength and dexterity. I could never climb a rope, or do the flexed-arm hang, although I did have an above-average knack for getting smacked in the face by assorted pucks, balls, rackets and other team-sport weapons.

“Nurse, come quick! Get this boy an extra-large roll of gauze and a membership card for the chess club.”

That was me.

It wasn’t merely that I was terrible at playing sports – I never even managed the art of watching them. Even the basics of sports viewership eluded me.

For instance, I’d be flummoxed when the home team would be victorious, and people would shout, “We won! We won!”

My response was always, “Really? ‘We’ won? Were you personally responsible for putting the little whatzit in the net-type area more times than the opposing team? Because my distinct impression was that there were a bunch of highly trained, highly paid professional athletes who actually won, while your contribution was to watch the game on TV, drink beer, and periodically utter the nonsensical syllable ‘Woo!’ So, you know, congratulations on that.”

(To clarify: this response was in my head only. I may not know sports, but I am a champion at minimizing the odds of physical violence being inflicted upon my person.)

There was always one exception, though. One sporting event that transcended my athletic incompatibilities, drew me in, and kept me riveted day after day: The Olympics.

On one level, Olympic competition seems every bit as compromised by doping scandals, injuries, excess and ridiculous levels of testosterone-fueled aggression that help turn me off most sports. But the weird variety of sports, the global nature of the competition, and the outlandish pomp and ceremony create a product that is both quirky and awe inspiring.

The Olympics are about much more than sports. They are about international cultural exchange, urban infrastructure megaprojects, performance psychology, sponsorship and branding, citizenship, gender issues, local politics and international peace.

And this is where the worlds of academia and athletics meet.

It’s curious. I’ve been looking into who does research related to the Olympics, and it turns out there’s a lot happening in Ontario. A Carleton prof is studying the games’ effect on low-income youth. A U of T Law prof studies the politics of how some countries provide elite athletes with citizenship just so they can compete. Meanwhile, a sports psychologist at Laurentian has a SSHRC Insight Grant to study the acculturation of elite athletes who immigrate to Canada. Western is home to the International Centre for Olympic Studies, and a kinesiology grad student at Brock is actually competing at the games.

I’ll be following up on some of these stories and others throughout the Olympics. But my one point today is that, when I talk about these researchers I find myself saying, “We do some interesting Olympics-related branding research in Ontario,” or “We’ve got some great kinesiology work happening at several universities in the province that’s making a difference to Canada’s showing at the London Olympics.” I say “we” even though I am no more responsible for these researchers’ theories and insights than I am for a sports team getting the puck-ball in the goal zone.

In the end, that feeling of “we” comes from a sense of community. Sports fans and journalists might think one player is a great and another is a bum, but in general, they’re interested in the game, excited by the pursuit of excellence, and while they’re not athletes themselves, they are part of the culture. This is exactly how I see the academic world – the passion, the competition and the aspiration are all there. “Go team!” I say.

I’m not anticipating there being university researcher trading cards or fan clubs any time soon, but I do believe that Ontarians can take some justifiable pride in the research that happens in their province.

So, as the Olympics begin, I think of all those university researchers who have helped improve athletes’ performance, who have provided such fascinating insight into ancillary Olympic issues, and who, in their own way have become world champions.

I would like to say to those researchers, “Woo!”

You deserve it.

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