Sunday, 23 August 2009

Winning IS everything...

... the problem is we seem to have forgotten exactly WHAT winning is! Let me explain myself using a couple of nicely topical examples...

Seventy-three years ago the Olympic games were hosted in Berlin and would be remembered primarily for the conflicting presence of two of the most influential individuals in history... Jesse Owens and Adolf Hitler. The 1936 Games were designed by the Nazi government to showcase the superiority of the white Aryan race over the rest of the world.... four gold medals later (100m, 200m, long jump & 4 x 100m) and Jesse Owens managed to turn Hitler's very own Olympics into perhaps the most effective anti-Nazi message possible.

All of this I, and probably you, already knew... but my definition of winning comes not from four gold medals... rather, a single silver. Luz Long was one of Owens' main rivals and with one jump left in the first round had already qualified for the final, whilst Owens had fouled both of his first two jumps... one more and he would be out, leaving the route to gold clear for the German athlete. Seeing his fellow competitor struggling Luz wandered over to Owens and offered him some advice regarding his approach to his third, and only remaining chance to advance to the final. Knowing Owens was easily capable of making the required distance he suggested that the American started his run several inches earlier, therefore keeping well clear of the take-off board and, although reducing the 'length' of his jump, guaranteeing a place in the final. Following his rival's advice Owens snatched a place in the Olympic final and would then go on to set the Olympic long jump record securing the gold medal and leaving Long with silver.

You see, for me winning is about giving your absolute best in fair competition against your closest possible rival - the actual outcome has pretty much nothing to do with it. A true winner will always seek to challenge themselves against who they perceive as the best and will always do so on the most even playing field possible. What's the point in coming first if the favourite isn't there? What's the point in going 'swifter, higher, stronger' if you're in possession of some kind of advantage... hardly 'competition'.

Despite coming second, Luz Long walked from the Olympic stadium (arm in arm with Jesse Owens and right under Hitler's nose) as one of the greatest 'winners' of all time.

Now, if I'm going to define winning as I see it, let me define winning as it seems to have become...

Rather conveniently we don't need to leave Berlin... just fast forward to the 2009 world athletics championships and the semi-final of the men's 4 x 100 relay. With the USA beating Great Britain into second place by just over one tenth of a second both teams qualified for the final and the world looked forward to the prospect of Jamaica v United States. Then, as the evening's coverage drew to a close news began to filter through that the Americans had been disqualified... somewhat surprising to all of us who had watched the race live and seen nothing wrong with their performance. It seems though (according to the BBC online coverage - see the 21.32 comment ) that the British team had spotted an infringement and launched an official complaint. Now I hate cheating as much as anyone, and as I've already noted above you can only 'win' on a level playing field so what could the Yanks possibly have done to lead the British Team to protest??? Well, the answer it seems was to start, not complete, but start to hand the baton over a couple of inches before the designated zone... did they technically break the rules? YES. Did they gain an advantage? NO. Did they do it deliberately? NO. Were they the best team? YES Did the British team get one of their main rivals thrown out of the world championships for no greater reason other than 'they could' in order to increase their own chances of 'winning' (their definition not mine)? IT SEEMS SADLY SO! The video is HERE if you want to see for yourself.

As part of my role as a lecturer in sports science at The University of Leeds I hold regular seminars around the ethics of sport and competition. Unfortunately society seems to have forgotten what it truly means to 'win' (as demonstrated earlier this year by my namesake on the rugby field) with the common definition centered around an outcome rather than a process. More often than not I come across the 'win at all costs' attitude (which would be fine if they actually understood the word 'win') and only slightly less disappointing is the almost as popular 'it's not the winning it's the taking part' camp.

Going back to the title of today's blog...

WINNING (giving your absolute best against your closest rivals regardless of the outcome) REALLY IS EVERYTHING.

See you next week,


p.s. This week's winner? Ben G for lending me (his closest rival) his disk wheel for our club time trial championships - despite leveling the playing field with his act of sportsmanship he still crossed the line nearly 20 seconds ahead of me - we both 'won' though ;)

p.p.s And this week's loser? The first guy off for team number 92 at this weekend's Team Relay Championships - despite drafting his way round the bike by sucking onto whatever wheel he could, and crossing the line before me for the 'win' - he was very much the loser (see above).

p.p.p.s. Massive apologies for letting my amazing team down on Saturday with perhaps the worst two transitions in my triathlon history. If it had been me on my own I wouldn't have been so disappointed (although as Kev cleverly pointed out I would have done well to arrive late to my own transition) but being part of a team raises the stakes and looking at the results my lack of focus probably cost us four places (5th to 9th) in the mixed competition. I truly am sorry, hopefully you'll have me back next year to put things right?

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