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Democracy is a team sport: What the Olympics can teach us about politics

By: Sana Shahram, University of British Columbia and Katrina Plamondon, University of British Columbia

Tensions and divisions in Canada are still running high more than a month after the so-called freedom convoy and, to borrow a sports metaphor, it’s time we call for a collective “time out.”

As public health professionals, we were shocked, angered and scared by the misinformation and co-opting of human rights rhetoric underpinning the protests. We were also angered and disappointed by responses from politicians who — on all sides of the aisle — met the protests with equally unproductive dogmatism and minimization.

While it’s true the protests revealed deep political polarization, it’s also true that conversations provoked by the protests have provided us with the opportunity to create a more inclusive and participatory democracy.

After all, many people have valid reasons to be frustrated with COVID-19 restrictions. Instead of letting legitimate grievances be co-opted by the far-right, we can use better and smarter engagement strategies to move through this impasse, together.

As Canada continues to navigate this pandemic (and other major global issues), our diversity of experiences could be a source of strength and insight, instead of a source of division. Recognizing that Canada still has much to reconcile, it’s time for a new game plan — maybe using the Olympics as an inspiration to build a new kind of Team Canada.

Remember, there is no ‘I’ in team

At the Olympics, athletes from all across the country convene under a common Canadian flag. We can take some valuable lessons from Olympic athletes, like thinking as a team, rather than an individual.

Thinking as a team requires mutual respect and trust that honours interpersonal relationships and opens possibilities to imagine better solutions to complex societal problems (like how to weather a pandemic) that work for everyone.

In order to play as a team, we need to stick to our positions, play to our strengths and extend trust to others to do the same. You would never pull star hockey forward Marie-Philip Poulin mid-game and stick her in goal or expect snowboarder Mark McMorris to start competing in the luge after watching a YouTube video.

We can extend this logic to other places as well, including in relation to our pandemic experts.

A hockey player scoring a goal on a hockey goalie
In order to play as a team, we need to stick to our positions and play to our strengths, like Team Canada hockey forward Marie-Philip Poulin, pictured here at at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Although misinformation has eroded some trust in health experts, doctors and scientists still remain trusted authority figures among Canadians. Canada needs to continue to restore faith in expertise, and health experts need to do their work in ways that invite and value diverse voices, perspectives and experiences.

Be a good sport

A better playbook calls on us to engage in authentic dialogue, where all parties are open and willing to listen and to understand.

This means being aware of our biases and working hard to counter them. Confirmation bias, for example, is when we favour information that confirms our already-held beliefs and subsequently dismiss any information that goes against it. This leaves no room for learning and growing through healthy debate. Good sportsmanship reminds us that we should not be striving to win at all costs or as a result of unfair advantages.

This means calling out double standards, like who is criticized as being part of profiteering conspiracies (such as Big Pharma) and who evades scrutiny (such as the trillion-dollar health and wellness industry).

This also means calling out double standards that exhaust our capacity to engage critically with the world around us. The most glaring recent example is the stark difference in how the “freedom convoy” protesters were treated compared with Indigenous land-defenders on their own territories.

Build your nuance muscles

Sometimes the game plan changes; a player gets hurt or the other team switches up their strategy. In a game, we need to be flexible and adapt to these changes in order to win. The same is true for our response to the pandemic.

Adapting guidelines to respond to emergent data is a feature — not a flaw — of good science. While critiques of inconsistent and confusing public health mandates are valid, critiques of the dynamic nature of our responses and guidelines as proof of conspiracies are less so.

The public, for its part, needs to grow more comfortable with the unknown — especially in a rapidly evolving pandemic — without jumping to conspiracies or all-or-nothing thinking.

Above all, we all need to remember we are all in this together and we’re all playing for the same team. Our neighbours and friends make up our health systems and governments and they are navigating the pandemic and its restrictions alongside us.

Team Canada, we are stronger together

For better of worse, this pandemic has reminded us that we are all bound to each other. It has shown us the ways in which we are able to mobilize and accomplish things we never imagined were possible — like developing a global COVID-19 vaccine in record time and revolutionizing the virtual care industry — proving ourselves tremendously capable of adaptation.

A crowd of spectators holding Canadian flags
We can take some valuable lessons from Olympic athletes, like thinking as a team, rather than an individual. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

We therefore call on all of us, Team Canada, to strive for better. Let’s create new ways to participate in our democracy, by engaging and listening to each other. Let’s learn about leadership from Indigenous nations that are reclaiming and re-imagining relationships with health-care systems like the Ktunaxa Nation’s xaȼqanaǂ ʔitkiniǂ project.

Instead of staring in shock at a stalemate of divisiveness that leaves most of us behind or minimizing the foul forces driving confusion and divisiveness, let’s direct our energy at fortifying our system so it doesn’t collapse during the next pandemic, ensuring poverty doesn’t exacerbate health inequities, improving global access to COVID-19 vaccines and helping those currently neglected by our systems.

If ever there was a moment to invest in our society and in each other, with productive, equity-focused and imaginative conversations, this is it. All levels of government can leverage their platforms to invite inclusive engagement and to listen for direction. Rather than tolerating divisiveness and intolerance, we can and we should embrace this important moment to create a more participatory form of democracy.

Sana Shahram, Assistant Professor of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia and Katrina Plamondon, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing, Faculty of Health & Social Development, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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