Paris 2024 will be the third time Paris host the OlympicsEmily Lawson-Todd for Varsity

This year is an Olympic year, which may not mean much to most people, but for me, it means I’m going to become insufferably obsessed with random sports. I have been told by my friends before that I am the only person they know who is not a fan of a specific sport, but the Olympics as a whole. Sporting achievement compilations make me tear up regularly without even needing to show the sports themselves; simply watching a video of Aly Raisman’s parents reacting to her 2016 Olympic floor routine causes me to well up. Paris 2024 is looming, but for Cambridge students, so are exams. For both athletes and students, the upcoming months represent a period where the culmination of potentially four years’ worth of hard work takes place. For finalists, especially those whose final exams constitute 100% of their degree classification, there are many parallels to be drawn with upcoming Olympic athletes, and that means that we can also learn from Olympians.

“Reaching out, and admitting something isn’t right, even if it is not visible physically, is brave”

One of the most memorable moments of Tokyo 2021 was Simone Biles withdrawing from the team competition in gymnastics, and subsequently withdrawing from all individual finals except from the beam. Simone Biles has openly discussed that she experienced the “Twisties”, a phenomenon in gymnastics where gymnasts get a mental block about twisting, leading to them getting ‘lost’ in the air, and losing their spatial awareness. This is incredibly dangerous in a sport where timing is paramount, and misjudging opening up from a trick can result in broken ankles, legs, or worse. Simone Biles has expressed that this took months and months to overcome, and the fear of experiencing getting ‘lost’ in the air again still impacts her training today.

When Simone Biles made the brave decision in Tokyo to pull out of the competition before she got hurt and at a time when a teammate could still be subbed in, she taught us all an important lesson about pushing our limits. I think the ability to set a boundary and know when pushing further will only result in further pain is incredibly important for Cambridge students to take forward in their exams. Knowing your limits, and to step back when things become too much is crucial in order to retain sanity and safety in a time that can be, understandably, stressful. Simone knew when to raise the alarm, and she reached out to the medical professionals, coaches and family surrounding her. Reaching out, and admitting something isn’t right, even if it is not visible physically, is brave. Simone’s bravery, hopefully, is encouraging and inspiring. It has not defined her as an athlete, and it has not stopped her from attempting (and landing) the hardest vault in women’s gymnastics two years later.

“Knowing your limits, and to step back when things become too much is crucial”

Another lesson that can be learned concerns competition. Naturally, the Olympics is an incredibly competitive environment, and Cambridge can sometimes feel equally competitive, especially within a system that publishes rankings of the student body. However, even in the Olympics, a gold medal is not the be-all and end-all. Winning isn’t everything; qualification is an amazing feat. This is heart-wrenchingly encapsulated by the film The Swimmers, based on the true story of Yusra Mardini and her sister. The sisters were refugees of the Syrian civil war, and when the motor of the boat they were on stopped working and started taking on water, the girls and others able to swim jumped into the water and swam next to the boat, pushing and pulling it for hours until they reached land. On arrival in Germany, Yusra Mardini continued her swimming career, eventually qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics as one of the 100 athletes selected for the Refugee Olympic Team. After winning her heat, Yusra was eliminated from the next round.

A medal clearly is not the only marker of success for Olympians. Everyone faces different challenges, and it is important to remember that for Cambridge students, success is not solely measured by degree classification. Success looks different for different people, and comparisons are unhelpful and unproductive. Everyone at Cambridge has something to be proud of because they are here, and that is amazing in itself.

“Success is not solely measured by degree classification”

Success also does not need to come at the expense of someone else. In a competitive environment, it can sometimes feel that to succeed, others have to fail, and this can lead to unhealthy competition. The story of high jumpers Barshim and Tamberi illustrates beautifully that success and winning do not have to be solitary or come at the expense of others. Both jumpers have sustained the same career-threatening injury of a torn ligament at points in their careers, and the athletes have supported each other and motivated each other through recovery.

At Tokyo, the high jumpers competed until they were the last jumpers left in the competition. After they each reached their limits of failed jumps at the same height, an official came over and asked if they wished to proceed to a ‘jump off’. Instead, Brashim asked “Can we have two golds?“. This request was granted, and both jumpers were able to celebrate and share the Olympic gold medal, a milestone made even more significant when considering the long injury-ridden road it took to reach that point. Friendship is incredibly important, and this remains true in exam season. Success can be shared, and sharing can make a victory even sweeter.


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Victory may also not appear in the discipline you expect. Cambridge students sometimes have the ability to switch courses if they feel that their current course does not suit their strengths. While daunting, this has no impact on your ability to achieve. This is a lesson embodied by the current men’s 100m Olympic champion, Marcell Jacobs. The Italian sprinter was originally a long jumper, which I realised after noticing that his Instagram handle is still @crazylongjumper. Following some digging, I discovered that the Tokyo Olympics, where he won gold, was his first Olympic appearance as a sprinter. This demonstrates perfectly the simple reality that plans change and people change. Mapping out a life plan will never account for the twists and turns of reality, but this should be exciting, not scary. Sometimes things you hoped would work out don’t, but redirection can be a blessing. Do not be afraid to change your mind, and do not think that the journey to success is linear.

This collection of lessons is just a small sample of what Cambridge students could learn from watching the Olympics. Sport should be fun, and athletes often describe the joy of competing and performing. I hope that all of us can find some joy in the impending revision and exam season, whether that’s by making time to read something you’re genuinely interested in, or by pursuing a passion outside of your subject. The exam term does not need to involve living like a reclusive robot but can be enjoyed and should be enjoyed – even if this is just on C Sunday.