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Will athletes use their power for good or evil?

By Shannon Miller
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gold medalist gymnast says athletes do have a platform of higher visibility
  • She says it's vital they use it to give back, but athletes share much in common with us all
  • Shannon Miller: Everyone can make a difference and strengthen society

Editor's note: Shannon Miller is a former gymnast and Olympic gold medalist who will take part Thursday evening in a CNN Dialogues program on "Athletes and Social Responsibility" at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) -- I never set out to be an Olympic gold medalist. I never said out loud that I wanted to be the world's best at any particular thing. As a scrappy little girl I certainly never imagined that I would be the most decorated at any given sport. I was a shy middle child, the peacemaker, growing up in Oklahoma. At 5 years old, I followed my older sister into the sport of gymnastics.

Our parents were concerned over our treatment of their furniture with our jumping and somersaults and took us to a gymnastics facility. I fell in love from that first day. It was tough, it was even scary at times, but I loved it. I enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment I received when I learned a new skill. I also realized I could prove myself without words. My actions would speak for me.

Our parents taught us from an early age that actions are important. You can say a lot of things, but at the end of the day, can you back it up? We also learned that our actions do have consequences, good and bad. However, if you made a poor decision, all was not lost. Much of the time you still had an opportunity to correct the mistake, to choose another path or sometimes simply state, "I'm sorry."

Shannon Miller
Shannon Miller

I was never taught that I had more social responsibility because I was an athlete. Rather I learned from an early age that regardless of whether or not I could do a full twisting double back off of a 4-inch-wide beam, I was expected to give back in whatever way I could, just like my sister and brother, just as my parents did.

While we may not always have had the resources to give financially, we were able to assist with fund-raisers, bring food and toys to those in need, or simply share a kind word with another. We could give of our time and talent, if not treasure. And soon as I was able, I could give of that treasure, too.

I did not grow up in a world of social media where everyone knew exactly what you were doing at every moment of every day. I chuckle at the look of shock I get from those younger athletes who cannot comprehend that I had never even logged on to the Internet until after the 1996 Olympics.

We now often feel this need to share with the whole world every little thing we are doing. I'm as guilty as anyone else with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. However, at the end of the day, social responsibility isn't about being front-page news. It's about helping others.

Professional and Olympic athletes who are able to bring awareness to a cause by generating news coverage can be an essential way to spread a positive message and educate others. However, that doesn't mean that those athletes who choose to donate anonymously or work with others away from the spotlight are any less important.

The point is to make a difference in small and big ways. In fact, the point is that everyone, professional athlete or not, can and should share in this social responsibility.

Certainly some people will have a broader audience than others. I don't know that this means they should be held to a higher standard. Instead, the idea should be that we all hold ourselves to the highest standard.

I am blessed that I have the opportunity to shine a light on critical issues that I am passionate about such as cancer awareness, childhood obesity and women's health. I realize I am able to reach more people in less time by simple virtue of the success I had in gymnastics.

In some ways, it's like having this special super power, and you can choose to use it for good or evil. We need to choose the positive over the negative. That doesn't mean we're all going to be perfect.

It's not perfection that matters, it's what you do with that mistake when it does happen. How do you handle it? How can you share your humanity in a way that inspires and strengthens others?

I do my best to be a positive role model, not because I'm an Olympic gold medalist, but rather, because I am a human being. I often view things through the lens of a mother and as a daughter. Am I or is a particular athlete doing something I would want my child to emulate? As a daughter, is what I'm doing something my parents would be proud of?

Yes, athletes are role models. The fact is that social responsibility is taken to a heightened level when you are a prominent and public figure. However, I believe that the question is not whether or not an athlete is socially responsible. The critical question is: Are we as people socially responsible?

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