“Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”. That is the English interpretation of the Olympic Latin motto. Maybe they should add ”Controversaie” (“Controversial)” or, at least, “Dramaticus” (“Dramatic”) because, really, have you ever known an Olympic games without controversy or, at a minimum, some degree of drama?
We all remember the massacre in 1972 in Munich which was an actual tragedy; but a little search revealed way more drama and controversy over the years than I remembered. (I don’t usually suggest Wikipedia, but check out Wikipedia anyway for a ‘List of Olympic Games and controversies’.) Since 1908, the Olympics have given us: numerous boycotts, countries banned, rules broken, blatant cheating, apartheid issues, political statements, a massacre, a bombing, doping scandals, officiating controversies, huge financial debt, gender questions, age disqualifications, recreational drug use, judging scandals – and, finally, in 2020 and 2022, Covid restrictions, a controversial host country, and diplomatic boycotts. And that just covers 1908 to the present. How about centuries ago when athletes competed naked and women were completely banned? It's true. Look it up.
But, in addition to the fact that the Olympics encompass all the sports at one time and is really a show of excess, in all ways, where the opening ceremony alone can cost up to $100,000,000 US, or $416, 667 per minute for the 2008 Olympics (therichest.com, ‘The Five Most Expensive Olympic Opening Ceremonies Ever’), maybe it is all of this drama that helps attract competitors to these specific games, to sacrifice themselves for just another four years, to maybe take the chance of bending a rule, in order to reach the apex of sporting accomplishment. It is a spectacle like no other in sports.
But, along with every scandal, each Olympic games has that one person who steps up and wins – not the medal, but the honour of being so resilient, so persevering, so well-liked, so sincere, and so ‘human’ amongst all the chaos and the clutter and the, sometimes, ruthless competition.
Enter Keegan Messing. I don’t know anything about figure skating, but I have figured out that, if you are not in the very top two or three, you can’t simply have a good day and win a medal. Figure skating is such a precise and finesse sport. Although Keegan Messing has done well and is a really entertaining skater, I don't believe he has ever been considered a favourite to be number one at a world championship or the Olympic games.
So, when you know you will, in all likelihood, not ‘finish on the podium’, there has to be other motivation to compete, and it has become clear that Keegan Messing is motivated deep in his soul.
We all know the story by now. Consider his journey simply to get to the Olympics in Beijing. He lives in Girdwood, Alaska which, in itself, creates unique travel logistics. Throw in COVID, and things get really messy. After being derailed by a positive COVID test and missing the team charter flight, what should have taken two flights (one to Vancouver and one to Beijing), ended up being a marathon, half-way around the world, trip from Alaska to Vancouver to Montreal to Frankfurt to Milan and then to Beijing. He arrived barely in time to have a practice session, shave, and participate in the short program which he skated pretty much his best of the season. Two days later, he skated his long program which was his highest score of the season. He finished 11th overall. That shows some strength and resilience.
(I don’t know about you, but just one international flight makes me foggy for days, let alone five flights around the world. I guess that is why they have to be able to rely on their intensive training to take over when their physical body is in one time zone and their brain in another.)
(Photo from CBC.ca, Paul Chiasson/the Canadian Press)
But, aside from his journey to get to Beijing, it is who Keegan Messing is that steals our hearts. He is understated in all ways. He lives in Alaska. He trains wherever and however he can (lifting car batteries and chainsaws during Covid, according to bevsmithwrites.com) He skated in Skate America just five weeks after his brother died suddenly in 2019. He dotes on his wife and infant child. He skates to music that is handpicked and meaningful to him. - for instance, “Home”. He holds up a picture of his infant son after each skate. He wears the stereotypical Canada red and black checkered plaid shirt in his long program. He is a true outdoorsman (mountain biking, skiing, and camping, according to his Olympic profile). He dedicates each skate to his son and to his deceased brother. He’s the one who, as bronze medalist, held out the Japanese flag on the podium in 2019 for the gold medal winner. One of his main sadnesses about missing the first few days of the Olympics was missing the team event because, as he said, figure skating is such an individual sport, he wanted to just be there, to be part of, and cheer on, the team, and he had packed all manner of Canadian paraphernalia to do so. After all the travelling and upset and worry of the days prior to getting to Beijing, he said his only thought was his family. He said the Beijing Olympics, his second Olympics, were for his deceased brother who also had an Olympic dream. After finishing 11th and after all the heartache, he said: “I’m just happy to be here. I’ve got the biggest smile on my face. And I feel full. It’s everything. This is the Olympic dream.” (ctvnews.ca ‘Keegan Messing satisfied with finish after roller-coaster Olympics’). And he finished 11th.
Maybe the real testament to an athlete’s character, though, is revealed in what teammates say about them. Long time team mate Kaitlyn Weaver: “You will not meet someone kinder than Keegan Messing – more genuinely interested in the well-being of others. A hard working, big loving, well-wishing kid.”
So, Keegan Messing’s motivation to take five flights half way around the world to reach the Olympics and to compete, exhausted, lies in what appears to be important to him – authenticity, simplicity, concern for the human race, sportsmanship, humility, a respect for the great outdoors, family, raising strong and healthy children, camaraderie, being a good person, doing his best.
This is not to take away from any athlete. There are truly good people everywhere – and all countries at the Olympics have them.
But, ironically, Keegan Messing stood out during a week that has seen Canada hurting by division and protests and turmoil. He is just what we needed to bring us joy and to remind us of the good in people and in Canada and in the world. His only drama is good drama. He is just what we needed at this time, and he is bigger than the Olympics.