OTTAWA - As my childhood friends will all happily attest, I was never one of nature's athletes. Perhaps because of this, the two athletes I most admired were people who mastered not only the practice of sport, but also its virtues.
Terry Fox was more than a prolific runner and Jackie Robinson was more than an accomplished second baseman, because each man's character was equal to his physical prowess. Each chose, therefore, to be as much a champion for the weak as he was the embodiment of the strong, and to press his sporting talents into the cause of public service.
Their lives embodied the ethic that the values of sport – fair play; gallantry towards teammates and adversaries alike; equality of opportunity in the pursuit of excellence; humility in victory and grace in defeat – are the cornerstone convictions of an honourable society. In many ways, the ideal of the level playing field expresses the universal yearning for a just and meritocratic world.
Though I believe these are values shared by all sports, I have naturally observed them most in the sport I know best.
Equestrianism is one of the few sports where men and women compete with and against one another on terms of absolute equality. Rarer still, as a partnership between one athlete who holds the reins and one who can not speak for himself, equestrianism calls upon the decency and compassion of the human to put the welfare of the horse ahead of any question of personal ambition.
For six thousand years, equestrianism has been the source of the code – indeed of the very word – of chivalry.
In the aftermath of the media and political reaction to the national effort to “own the podium” at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and Paralympics, all Canadian athletes have been confronted with the question of whether the values of their sports are at odds with a determined pursuit of competitive success.
In my view, those who suggest that there is a conflict between good sportsmanship and an unabashed yearning to bring home victory misunderstand the essence of international competition.
When athletes represent Canada internationally, we serve not only as contenders in our chosen sports, but also as ambassadors of Canadian identity. On the field of honour and off, our words and deeds necessarily project the values of our country and the vision of the nation that Canadians aspire to create.
Because of this, Canadian athletes have a responsibility to greet the world with the conviction that not only can Canadians be the best in the world, but that Canadians have no business striving for anything less. The ultimate medal tally is only the beginning. The spirit of relentless national resolve in the face of the very best that the rest of the world has to offer is everything.
While having the humility to acknowledge that no one country always owns the podium, we are too proud of our own country to ever aim any lower.
As someone who has placed both first and last in international competition, I can say in all sincerity that there is no greater athletic honour than to carry the maple leaf into competition.
It is a privilege that no victory can dwarf, that no defeat can diminish, and that can only nourish a belief that however many or few medals we may bring home, Canada’s rightful place is always atop the world.
Akaash Maharaj captains Canada’s equestrian skill-at-arms team, and was a triple gold medallist at the 2008 International Championships. He also serves as CEO of Canada's overall national, Olympic, and Paralympic equestrian team, and is a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee.