Politicians Vs. Olympians: What It Takes To Be The Best

The 2010 Winter Olympics commence in nearly two months, and the 2010 election is just under a year away. Recently, I've been contemplating the parallels between the two, particularly regarding what political candidates and Olympic athletes must endure on their quests through qualifying events and life long endeavors. Both require great physical stamina, a highly competitive nature, raw talent and a drive to win.

My first national campaign was in '04. I also worked on campaigns in '06 and '08. As an editor for BlogHer, I covered the Democratic National Convention and some other special political events last year. I also began blogging about figure skating events as a former competitive skater and observing the athletes vying for Olympic medals this year. Meanwhile, I became WomenCount's director of new media and began following the progress of major candidates in a variety of races at different levels this season. I never set out to take either path, but as a close observer, I've learned a lot.

So far I discovered similarities between candidates and athletes exist in a few areas: mental and emotional development, physical training and endurance, and natural talent. Both political and sports competitors must prepare themselves physically, emotionally and mentally. To become remotely serious about politics or a sport requires strict discipline to stick to a routine, the ability to allow someone else to take a lead role in training. Politicians are "managed" by campaign managers, and schedulers control their every waking moment. Athletes typically work with one primary coach and other supplemental coaches and trainers.

The emotional component includes learning to deal with scenarios most of us will never have to face. For politicians, the emotional preparation happens over many years -- from the first negative attack ad campaign launched against them to the thousands of letters and phone calls begging them for help. The most successful politicians learn to control their emotions and maintain composure even under the most draining of scenarios. And they learn to deal with the highs and lows of wins and losses; they also learn to compose themselves publicly while riding on an emotional roller coaster. Remember the Dean scream? Or John McEnRoe's tennis court tantrums?

Athletes fall down and get up again on a regular basis, competitive events providing ample teachable moments. They learn not to let the audience, judges or referees, other competitors, fans, public scrutiny or media get to them. Feelings of frustration, embarrassment and nervousness often merge with physical pain and exhaustion in both cases. Once athletes reach the highest levels of competition, vying for spots on the Olympic podium, some can't handle the strain. Those that can -- on top of being the most physically ready -- win the gold.

That's where some of the biggest figure skating surprises have happened. Many a skater with consistent wins at the national level has faltered when in major international competition due to the extreme pressure involved, and we all know the stories of politicians who played it too safe, losing their edge. Al Gore and Michelle Kwan are both unfortunately known for the one thing they came so close to winning, but fell a hair short.

Physical preparation of course includes working diligently to become the best at the sport of choice along with cross training for strength. Athletes must ensure their bodies stay well-oiled machines, including the right mix of sleep, exercise and nutrition -- some sports require more protein vs. carbs; others the reverse. It's a complex science honed over years of study by coaches, doctors and trainers and there are still people arguing over the best strategies. Some doctors advocate a meat regimen to build strength. Bill Clinton comes to mind.

Politicians, while it might seem they need no physical training -- the reality is to the contrary. Candidates travel extensively, changing time zones, sleeping in odd locations, pulling all nighters after attending scores of events throughout the week. They fill their days with events, staying up late and getting up at the crack of dawn. They cannot afford to get sick and their voices must remain clear as bells, while somehow managing to eat whatever food is put in front of them on the campaign trail. In this respect, it could be said they face tougher constraints. Their bodies take endless abuse, and they have little recourse until after the election. Which brings us to endurance.

Political campaigns are often referred to as marathons (vs. sprints), because they have to be planned carefully for the campaigns and the candidates to weather several months of hard work, late nights and trying moments. That requires massive amounts of endurance on the part of the politicians, their staffers and volunteers. Barack Obama's campaign, while it's often mentioned how brilliantly it handled fund raising, strategy and field operations, long term endurance and pacing is key to make that happen. Endurance training is key to all sports, and it must be done right in order to succeed.

Finally, to be the best, all of the above will only take tough competitors so far without a natural talent for their sport or charisma in politics. On the charisma meter, John McCain and Dick Cheney never matched up to Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. It's also about peaking at the right time. In sports, Sarah Hughes peaked at the 2002 Olympics. She had never won a U.S or world title, but she was the daughter of a collegiate hockey team captain and clearly had both a natural talent for skating as well as a drive to win and a remarkable attitude. Barack Obama's campaign peaked along with his popularity. That was no accident.

So as we approach the big events of 2010 -- the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada and the U.S. national election (including the House, 1/3rd of the Senate, and a significant number of governors' seats) -- we can watch for contenders who have all of these qualities. Although there are numerous minor details that must be mastered along the way in terms of campaign strategies and training techniques, it's the big things that carry the best of the best all the way to the top.

Sarah Granger is running a half marathon online this week as one of five semi-finalists in a 13 day contest to win a trip to blog at the Olympics.