Image courtesy of Armin Küstenbrück

James: Reflecting on Rio

Olympic Mountain Bike XCO, 21 August
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

James: 42nd (-3 laps)

An opportunity to represent your country at the Olympics is a rare privilege. It’s an extremely complex dream to hold onto, and one that escapes many more hands than are able to grasp it and cling to it. It’s not just the years of hard work and preparation that very few are willing or able to sacrifice, it’s the constant flirting with fate you have to engage in.

To perform on the biggest sporting stage on the planet, you need to stress your mind and body enough to grow mentally and physically. Finding the very limits of your comfort zone and pushing these out into the painful unknown again and again. It requires deep stores of resilience and perseverance. This endless dance is what forges the greatest athletes.

In a sport like mountain biking participation alone requires putting yourself in harm’s way. At the zenith of the sport, where James Reid chooses to play, exploring the edge of your physical and mental abilities is a fine balance of confidence, control and surrendering to the unknown. Being selected to represent your country at the Olympics in the mountain bike event is one thing, getting to the start line in peak physical shape is another challenge altogether.

James and our team mechanic JP Jacobs left for Brazil with our hopes and expectations filling their hearts and minds. Both as ready as they could possibly be. We are proud of the lofty high-performance goals we have openly spoken about and pursued this year – even so, the Olympics was a huge moment for Team Spur. We had to pinch ourselves numerous times in the build-up to 21 August. After all, we are a fledgling team, with just two riders and two full-time staff and less than eight months competing in top-flight competition in South Africa and overseas. Sending two of our tight-knit team to the Olympic Games was a dream come true.

We have celebrated Ariane Kleinhans’ scintillating exploits in Europe recently (she won Grand Raid and placed second at Eigerbike earlier this month) but you’ll notice our facebook, twitter and instagram accounts have remained conspicuously devoid of feedback from James and JP after the Olympics.

Partly this is due to the very restrictive rules imposed on brands around marketing athletes at the Olympics – the famous and controversial Rule 40. Partly it’s because we were left just as deflated and disappointed as James by his 42nd place in Sunday’s race. In James’ own words the result “broke the mast out the boat, it didn’t just take the wind out of the sails”.

Knowing how much James, JP, his teammates, his friends and family had put into his moment at Deodoro Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro made writing about the experience near impossible. So we were incredibly fortunate that James’ father (and coach) Steve Reid penned his thoughts below, and posted them to James’ Medium blog a few days ago.

To call it a Race Report doesn’t do Steve’s writing justice. This is a powerful description of the Olympic journey and what’s at stake – both before the big dance and after the dust has settled. We simply couldn’t do the job any better.

Over to you, Steve:

Being in Rio, with all the excitement and buzz at the events, the emotional turmoil of James’ race, and then the incredible experience of the closing ceremony, has made us reflect on what all this means at a wider level than these events themselves. This is really for friends and family who have supported us all and especially James, through this extraordinary time.

Going back over the past year, James and I had set the goal of Olympic qualification as the first priority. Second to that we said we would aim for an improvement in his international ranking, and then local ranking. We strategized and planned around those priorities, choosing certain races and leaving others, and built a training plan that would lead to a crescendo in August. A year ago it sounded feasible, if daunting, as he was at that stage the favourite relative to the two other contenders, Philip Buys (who went to the London Olympics in 2012) and Alan Hatherley, a young up-and-coming rider, for the two coveted South African places. Olympic qualification looked like a foregone conclusion. But this was not to be.

Out of the 8 races that the selectors used as criteria for team selection, the later ones before the cut-off date of May were more highly weighted than the earlier ones, with the intention of ensuring that the chosen athletes were getting better through the season and not relying on past successes. The penultimate qualifying race, with 100% weighting, was held in Pietermaritzburg, and James was in great shape, expecting to win. But in the few hours before the race, a huge cloudburst dropped tons of water on the course and turned it to sticky mud. Racing on new tyres with little clearance between the wheel and the frame, James’ bike quickly jammed up and very soon into the first lap, he was unable to even turn the pedals. He tried a few times to unclog the system in order to carry on riding, as others were able to do, but his bike was completely jammed, and he had to withdraw from the race. So he earned no qualification points for this race, and this put him at the bottom of the ranking with no chance of redemption in the final qualifying race. Suddenly things looked very different. Was the rain an act of God? What was going on here, we asked ourselves?

He won the final qualifying race in Port Elizabeth convincingly, ahead of Alan by a minute and Phillip by more, which is a long way in mountain biking. But then followed weeks of soul searching as the selection committee delayed the announcement and hopefully “applied their minds”. In the meantime, James won the national championship from Phillip in dramatic style on the same track in Pietermaritzburg, now bone dry, but this was beyond the qualification period. The SA Olympic Committee dragged its heels in announcing the team, and we were forced into introspection, Janet to prayer. According to the published criteria, James was third on points as a result of the mechanical failure in the muddy race, but the selection committee was charged with applying its collective discretion. We wrote to the committee, suggesting that mechanical failure should not exclude James from the team, but by that stage they had already made their selection.

And then finally it became official, and James was chosen, along with Alan! It felt quite unreal, and we felt the pain and anger of Phillip who was excluded. One of the three was always going to be left behind. Janet [James’ mom] and I decided to go to Rio for a once in a lifetime experience. As preparations drew nearer, James went to Europe for a final block of training and two races, but he didn’t do particularly well in them, probably as a result of overtraining — a common result of the anxiety anticipating a big event. But we planned the final weeks before Rio in fine detail, and the preparation was perfect. He had seldom been in better shape.

So fast forward to the week before the race, a tremendous amount of preparation and hype, and as the games got going, so the interest in the whole event started gaining prominence in the popular press and imagination. The most unlikely people expressed their interest in the most peculiar athletic events! James got to the Olympic Village with TeamSA and was overwhelmed by the size and significance of the whole thing. He wrote “Mind blown by the magnitude, intensity and diversity of the Olympics. Started swapping country lapel pins as an icebreaker to meet all sorts from all walks — ours went up significantly after last night’s 400m win by Wayde van Niekerk, which left us all with a hearty shot of inspiration and cheering as a nation for our first bit of golden action”.

But things were not as easy as it seemed — it was very hot (35+ degrees C) with high humidity, and two days before the race he crashed badly in practice, coming over a blind rise to find someone fixing the track where they shouldn’t have been. He was concussed, which necessitated a brain scan at hospital, taking the whole afternoon, at the end of which he was subjected to random drug testing when he got back to the Olympic Village. Although the scan was clear, he was not feeling well, with some upper airway obstruction, so he was not a happy camper, and the race was imminent. But he practiced his lines on the course one last time the day before, and felt a bit more confident. The course suited him.

The race itself was unbelievably popular with spectators — at least 2 to 4 people deep on all the places on the course where spectators were allowed, and huge crowds around the start/finish area. It was a cool day, and 50 riders took off on a fast first lap. James was looking strong and lying under 30th position for the first 2 laps, but on the 3rd lap he came across Peter Sagan (of Tour de France fame) lying across his path in the ‘rock garden’ and fell when trying to avoid him. He picked himself up, straightened the bike out and carried on, but slashed the front tyre on a rock very soon after. In his own words: “Explosive start but I had strong traction and fantastic sensations. A crash in the rocks was par for the course somewhere in those conditions, so when it happened as I was moving up on 3 of 7, I took it on and sorted things quickly. Rolling through the feed, straightened out, I pinned it back and dived back in. Not 3 corners later and I heard a loud hiss from the front, and there was little I could do as I realized it was nearly 3kms round back to the feed. No doubling back, and it was fairly early stages. Catastrophic. After a long run & a fresh wheel, +9min meant it was game over.” At the end of the next lap he was pulled off the course as per the rules.

We are all struggling with the emotions after such an intense build-up and sequence of events. What does it mean? Why did it happen? Why to James? Why then? There was nothing he could have done to alter what happened — nothing to do with his preparation or training or even the bike itself, just an unfortunate puncture that could have happened to anyone at any time, and there were many other punctures in the race. So was it just ‘bad luck’? Thinking back, why did those tons of water hit the Pietermaritzburg track just before that qualifying race, and affect James specifically? What did that mean? And was there any connection to the puncture in the race?

I suppose it depends on whether one sees life as a series of random events that may arbitrarily turn out to be good or bad, versus life as a process of learning and striving towards a goal in terms of a broader purpose that holds meaning beyond our individual comprehension. Most atheists would subscribe to the former, whereas theists would say that God gives each of us a purpose, both individually and collectively. The philosopher Bernard Suits described sports as “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” Winning a race in a man-made event like the Olympics might appear to have nothing to do with God, and everything to do with extreme human effort and dogged persistence: the much vaunted idea that if you believe in yourself enough, you can do whatever you want, on your own. But this sort of experience of unpredictable catastrophe suggests otherwise: there is a message here that depends on the receiver as much as on James’ story, which is why I am telling it in such detail. I am not suggesting that the rain in Pietermaritzburg and the puncture in Rio were divine interventions, but that identifying the broader purpose for which we are given this precious thing called life, creates a coherence that makes sense of senseless events.

For us, one enormous sense of meaning came from the experience of the closing ceremony, an extraordinary spectacle of exuberant Brazilian music, colour, dancing, fireworks and 60 000+ people all united in celebration. But the most remarkable thing was feeling the unity in the diversity of athletes as well as spectators, while the athletes by the hundred processed into the stadium following their national flags. Huge groups of them kept on coming into the stadium, from Japan, from Ethiopia, from Chile, from Canada, from Jamaica, from Kenya, etc, etc, etc for an hour. It was literally amazing. As James’ USA friend Howard Grotts wrote after the ceremony: “Sport is about much more than just results. In its own way, competition can be incredibly unifying. And that is special in a world where so many labels and circumstances and hateful acts undermine our common humanity.” The unity came from being subjected to the same ‘unnecessary’ obstacles, competing under the same conditions regardless of who you are. The meaning was in the collective experience of understanding what it means to be human in terms of our diversity.

We also experienced enormous support and solidarity from friends and family, to an extent that felt very significant. We realised that people around us really care at a deep level, and the very personal and reflective messages both before and after the race were profoundly reassuring and meaningful. Some of this sense of meaning comes from the painful experience of James’ exit from the race. Athletes live on the extremes and take huge risks publicly, with which we can identify vicariously. When James loses a race, it is the symbolic value that affects us so deeply. Having built up hope and a dream, it is not just the race but the hope that is lost, and we all grieve. Sport is as much about how to lose as about how to win: how we pick ourselves up after defeat (or a crash in mountain biking), and carry on. It is about resilience: how we try again despite the setbacks. And there were many desperately disappointed athletes at the games after their events, when things didn’t go as they had hoped, so James was in very good company (in the mountain biking event 20 riders did not finish). The very public risk and vulnerability that athletes take on in tackling the ‘unnecessary obstacles’ represent to each one of us our own propensity for risk and vulnerability — we see in them our own human striving. When James wins a race, we take some of that elation for ourselves; and similarly when he punctures, or crashes, his human helplessness is displayed for everyone to identify with.

It is with this sense of vulnerability, in contrast to the invincibility misleadingly portrayed as the athlete’s persona in the media, that we return from Rio. I believe that God gives each one of us a purpose and a calling, which is our individual quest to discover and enjoy. This dependence on God to redeem our all too human helplessness, together with an experience of the diversity of the human experience, made us realise that we have been given one another to help to face our anxieties and insecurities, in this one life we are given. So when things don’t go according to plan, when disaster hits out of the blue, or when pain and grief lays us low, we can find solidarity with others who identify with the situation, we can appreciate the support of friends and family, and we can use the opportunity to discover or confirm our sense of purpose in the world. The statue of Christ the Redeemer was our ultimate destination on this trip, which was a fitting symbol of a wonderfully disturbing experience!

Thanks James boy, you made a lot of things happen for a lot of people, and your resilience carries enormous significance for us all.


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