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How the Olympics inspire ordinary people to become athletes

Posted August 18

Sitting on a couch watching TV isn’t good for your health — unless you happen to be watching the Olympics.

An analysis of sports participation after the 2008 games showed an increase in people taking up popular Olympic sports such as swimming, running and gymnastics the next year. And in one recent survey, nearly 70 percent of parents said they are inspired to become more active after watching athletic competitions.

Watching the Olympics can even inspire young children to become Olympians themselves. Cierra Runge was 4 years old and had never had a swimming lesson when she told her parents, while watching the games, that she wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. Now 20, the Pennsylvanian is competing in Rio with Team USA.

Raising an Olympian is expensive, and not every child will possess the kind of talent that the international-level competition demands. But every family can harness the power of the Olympics to stir interest in sports and to become more active. And the earlier the better, Olympians and parents of Olympians say.

The magic of 4

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a photo essay of five 2016 Olympians and the older Olympians who had inspired them. In some cases, the inspiration went back more than a generation.

Jimmy Pedro, a bronze medalist in judo in 1996, said his father loved the games and his interest trickled down to his son. “I watched every Olympic Games on the TV. Carl Lewis and Nadia Comaneci and Bruce Jenner — I was trying to be like them,” Pedro told Jaime Lowe, a freelance writer for the magazine.

Like Pedro, Diane and Scott Runge grew up watching the Olympics “from start to finish,” and so when they had children, the television was on whenever the Olympics were on, Diane Runge said from Rio, where she was preparing to watch her daughter Cierra compete.

“Cierra became mesmerized by swimming, and no other sport seemed as appealing. She’d sit on her knees, very close to the screen every time it was on,” her mother recalled.

Runge, who interrupted her career as a writer and entrepreneur to help with her three children’s athletic careers, said the preschool years seem particularly important when it comes to identifying and fostering a child’s innate talents.

“We believe in exposing children under 5 to as many diverse things as possible. If you listen, it seems like there’s something magical about being 4 years of age. Many elite athletes, artists, musicians, great minds all recognized their passion at 4 years old, and their parents put them in an environment to allow their talent to be developed appropriately,” she said.

For the Runge family, that was the local YMCA, where Cierra began swimming lessons soon after her preschool binge-watching of the games. (Her sister, Madison, also became an Olympic trials qualifier.)

But the Olympics can inspire families to embrace the virtues of sport, if not the sport.

The power of ideals

Todd Thrash is an associate professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he researches inspiration. He says there are ideals that underpin the things that inspire us — whether they are fireside stories or athletic events — such as the value of hard work, overcoming adversity, making sacrifices and loving each other.

“Unity is another one — when we see people united, coming together, that’s compelling for a lot of people,” he said.

The Olympics, then, can inspire us just to become better people, especially if you’re the sort of person who easily finds inspiration externally.

“There are certain kinds of people who get inspired. They tend to be people who are open-minded, who appreciate aesthetic beauty and new ideas and behaviors. People who are able to see the elegance, the beauty, the charm of something, even if it’s not directly relevant to them,” he said.

The beauty of the human form, whether in running effortlessly or executing a complicated dive, was in part what led silver medalist Scott Donie, now a diving coach at Columbia University, to lock onto an Olympic dream.

Donie, who says he used to be afraid of both heights and water, has said that the Olympics became a “goal and driving force in my life from the time I first watched them when I was 8 years old.”

Now a dad of a 10-year-old, Donie has written about how parents should watch the Olympics with their children. He advises them to set up “dates” to watch the games together (even if you have to record them) and to learn the personal stories behind some of the athletes. “It’s always more fun to watch if you know a little something about the people you’re watching,” he wrote.

Children are more likely to want to watch a sport they’re already interested in, Donie said, but Runge notes that it’s also a good time to introduce children to something new. There are 41 sports represented at this summer’s Olympics.

And the International Olympic Committee just announced five more will be added to the 2020 Games in Tokyo, specifically with the goal of getting more young people involved. They are skateboarding, climbing, surfing, karate and baseball/softball.

The legacy of events

Organizers of the 2012 Olympics, held in London, said they wanted to “inspire a generation,” but there are mixed reports on whether they did. In a 2014 report, the British government reported that 150,000 Londoners tried a new sport in the aftermath of the games, and the nation has invested more money in its athletes and school sports programs. That trickle-down effect has a name particular to sports: event legacy.

However, Liz Such, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, examined the legacy of the 2012 Olympics and found that the legacy is often exaggerated. In her focus group of 23 young people from England and Scotland, she found that all had watched the Olympics, and some had even attended some events.

But while some said they experienced a desire to take up the sport they watched, others said watching elite athletes perform made their desires seem out-of-reach.

Such noted that one 12-year-old said, “I was like, ‘wow, I can’t do that.’ Basically what I thought about the whole thing, it’s like ‘oh, God, I’m rubbish at everything.”

“This effect has been noted in other research and could be most of a problem among those young people who might already have a fragile relationship with sport and physical activity,” Such wrote.

That goes to what Thrash, the William & Mary professor, says about inspiration: that there are types of people prone to being inspired, others less so. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who can't picture ourselves on a balance beam can’t find other lessons in the games.

“If you compare yourself to athletes, it may be demoralizing. But you can appreciate the work they have done to get to where they are, and that lesson can be translated into one's area of interest,” Thrash said.

With their unfettered imagination, young children find it easy to imagine themselves superheros and world champions, and watching the Olympics together is a way parents can expose them to possibilities.

"Parents can be a tour guide for their children, exposing them to a smorgasbord of options," said Diana Runge, Cierra Runge's mother, who writes a blog about parenting athletes called "Sportsmomia."

When watching the games, ask your children questions about what sport they'd like to try, and try to find a way to make it happen. Invest in experiences, not things, for your family, Runge said.

And if an 8-year-old who's afraid of water and heights suddenly expresses an interest in diving, be ready to explore that with him.

"Don't pooh-pooh or find reasons they can't," Runge said. "Find reasons why they can."

EMAIL: jgraham@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @grahamtoday

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