This is the first of four pieces I have had published tinged with Olympic themes in celebration of the London Olympics, 2012.
Nowadays the phrase “performance-enhancing” and the word “drugs” all too frequently go together, particularly during the Olympics. But that wasn’t always the case.
In the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games, American marathon runner Fred Lorz “enhanced” his winning performance by hitching a ride for eleven of the 26 miles. He was later found out and his victory overturned.
In this age of camera-lined routes and helicopters hovering overhead illicit performance enhancement needs to be more subtle. And in an era when drugs are the default position for healthcare, quietly popping a pill to improve an athletic performance might seem to some just like the obvious flip side of taking a tablet to get better.
But while there are those who go to such unacceptable lengths to secure the rewards a gold medal can bring, the bulk of Olympians remind us there are legitimate and noble ways to upgrade our capabilities.
First among these is practice, practice, practice. That is a must for all athletes. But some point to additional avenues for overcoming limitations, including training our thoughts as well as our bodies.
An inspiring example of the latter is Punjab-born Londoner and 2012 Olympic torchbearer Fauja Singh. He is into double figures for marathons completed since taking up running in his mid 80s, and into triple figures as far as his age is concerned. He is now 101 and earlier this year finished the London Marathon in 7 hours and 49 minutes. His counsel? “‘The secret to a long and healthy life is to be stress-free. If there’s something you can’t change then why worry about it? Be grateful for everything you have, stay away from people who are negative, stay smiling and keep running”.
And touching on the spirituality that underlies all he does, the Sikh centenarian has said: “The first 20 miles are not difficult. As for the last six miles, I run while talking to God.”
One of the marathon runners in this year’s Olympics also sees the benefits of a spiritual approach. American Ryan Hall recently told the Running Times: “The most important thing I can train is my heart. It is what drives the body”. Hall, you could say, looks to a diviner mind to guide his training regime. He reads Scriptures, prays and prioritises the Christian faith he openly follows – echoing Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell, the 1924 Paris Olympics 400m winner memorably portrayed in Chariots of Fire.
This spiritual approach to training has helped Ryan Hall become the fastest ever American marathon runner with a personal best of just under 2 hours 5 minutes. That puts him in the running for a 2012 medal. It is easy to criticise athletes who take drugs to improve their chances of winning medals. But the desire to do better isn’t wrong in itself.
In our “life marathons” it is natural for each of us to want to achieve the best possible performance in all our various roles. In the past three decades I have found that giving priority to gaining a spiritual sense of calm is a health-giving, drug-free way to enhance all I do. At the very least it has significantly reduced the stress I used to experience, which is considered a key factor in good health.
Research points to stress causing some two-thirds of all visits to the doctor. I also find my spiritual practice can extend the limits of endurance while opening thought to a more consistent flow of insights and ideas throughout the day. Medical research is increasingly pointing to the role thought plays in achieving and maintaining healthy lives. It has shown, for instance, how belief governs the impact medicine has on the body.
Placebos – usually “pills” without any active ingredients – often offer similar benefits to prescription drugs. And “medicine” without the chemicals mean less risk of adverse side effects. That suggests the question: “Can we lessen our reliance on drug-taking and focus more on our thoughts instead?” This would be especially useful for sports personalities who need to steer clear of any suggestion they have achieved their goals by chemically enhancing their performance. And for many it would fit their priorities. As four-time World Ironman champion cyclist Chrissie Wellington recently put it: “Of all the body parts we train, none is more important than the mind.”