Athlete missed ’04 Olympics to have child

The Beijing Olympiad has passed and left the world images of glory that will last for many years: Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt setting records in the 100- and 200-metre dashes, the American basketball team gaining “redemption,” the dazzling spectacle and gracious hospitality the Chinese provided.

The Olympics, as the media inform us, is about dreams coming true, about accomplishing heroic things while the whole world is watching. One worthy Olympic story that falls under the media’s radar, however, is as much connected with an Olympiad in which an athlete did not perform as much as the one in Beijing where she was a medalist.

Tasha Danvers-Smith was preparing for running the 400-metre hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympiad. She was touted as one of the U.K.’s best chances for winning gold. Her pregnancy, one might say, was “ill-timed.” Nonetheless, Tasha, together with her husband/coach, Darrell, put their baby first. Members of the track community urged her to abort. The media chastized her when she did not: how could she be so foolish as to ruin her dream?

Tasha’s commitment to life in the face of peer pressure to represent her country and “go for gold” did not go unnoticed. The Life Issues Institute awarded the expectant mum the Hero of the Heart award, an honour given to those who “demonstrate outstanding courage or compassion on behalf of innocent human life.”

The Institute may not enjoy the international prestige that the Olympic Games have, but it does recognize the fundamental moral axiom that life is more sacred than achievement, that being is more primary than having. Moreover, what is wrong with making it possible for your child to have a dream?

Tasha continued to train, balancing her schedule between caring for her son, Jaden, and preparing for the next Olympiad. In Beijing, she ran her personal best and won a bronze medal in her special event, the 400-metre hurdles.

It has been said of Tasha that in winning an Olympic medal, she proved her critics wrong. This is a dubious accolade. If she was not a medalist at Beijing, would she have proved her critics right? The error of her critics has nothing to do with Olympic achievement.

A physical achievement, Olympic or otherwise, should be viewed as a preparation for a moral achievement. Strength, speed, endurance and agility are most useful, and even most inspirational, when they serve a moral purpose (despite their lack of media coverage): the fireman rescuing a child from a burning building, a lifeguard saving a person from drowning, a soldier freeing hostages. Service is innately superior to showmanship.

A few years ago, a 22-year-old pregnant woman by the name of Shannon Roberts lost control of her car during a diabetic attack and drove it into the Bow River in Calgary. A man by the unlikely but providential name of Jeff Liberty came to her assistance. He was an Olympic swimmer who represented Canada at the 2000 Olympiad in Sydney, Australia. Liberty dove into the frigid waters and, with great difficulty, rescued her. Which is the greater achievement: rescuing a life or running for gold? The answer should be self-evident. No Olympic medal ever said, “Thank you.”

The most splendid human deeds take place in the absence of either media coverage or lavish ceremony. It is a misfortune of incalculable magnitude for society to allow public fanfare to overshadow the quiet dignity of loving acts. It is one thing to pursue a dream, but it is far more important to stop along the way to lend a hand or be of service to a friend or stranger or deliver one’s child. A dream can narrow one’s focus to the point where one loses sight of everything else that is important. People dream of a carefree world when they should be awake and involved in one that is caregiving.

Tasha Danvers-Smith knows a great deal about hurdles. She also realizes that her child is not a hurdle that she had to clear, but her own child that she had to love. She deserves high praise, but such praise, like the crowd’s applause, will not sustain her. Rather, every time she looks at her son, she will know in her heart how right her choice was and, by comparison, how pale is her bronze medal.

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.