The Olympic Games: The Experience of a Lifetime or Simply the Most Important Competition of an Athletic Career?

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As a multi-sport event that only takes place every four years and is accompanied by intense media coverage, the Olympic Games are often described by athletes as a defining moment in their careers. The objectives of the present study were: 1) to describe differences in expectations of Olympic debutants towards the Olympics and their actual experiences while they were at the Games; and 2) to describe how the athletes negotiate the balance between performing at and enjoying the experience of the Olympic Games. Further, we will discuss the athletes' stories in light of the differences between the goals and expectations of the elite sport system and those of the individual athletes. Data was collected through a qualitative interview study with a pre- and post-Olympic competition design.

Using a semi-structured interview guide, we interviewed 14 Danish Olympic debutants about their Olympic goals and expectations within a month preceding their departure for the Olympic Games and about their actual experiences within a month following their return.

Condensed narratives from two Olympic debutants represent the spectrum of the athletes' expectations and experiences: one failed in his performance but had a great experience; the other was successful and won a silver medal but was truly unhappy with her experience. The debutants emphasize balancing their desire to perform with a desire for social experiences. They also discussed the challenges posed during preparation and goal setting.

Olympic debutants are caught in a very real dilemma between the Olympics as the “most important competition of their athletic careers” and “the Olympics as the experience of a lifetime.” This dilemma is linked to a wide rift between the perspectives and goals of the sport organization and those of the athletes.

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