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Winning without gold

By Rafe Champion - posted Friday, 16 January 2009


"Winning is not the most important thing, it is the only thing." So spoke Vince Lombardi, a legendary American Football coach.

In contrast stands the Olympic creed of Baron de Coubertin: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.”

The creed and also the Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) were adopted by de Coubertin when he set up the first International Olympic Committee in 1894 and became the prime mover in the modern revival of the Olympics.

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Lombardi responded to sports lovers unhappy with his “winner take all” attitude with the claim he was not really talking about winning on the scoreboard - he meant the will to win and the effort to play well.

But it appears his unreconstructed stance is still prevalent, given talk of Australia’s international prestige being on the line if we fail to deliver an adequate gold haul in Beijing.

Aside from the personal ambition of the athletes - ambitions which of course include financial reward since amateurism (shamateurism?) is in the past - there is now a great burden of expectation.

The cost of competition can be severe, especially in gymnastics where participants are young and movements are explosive, resulting in crippling injuries. Similar pressures drive the use of performance enhancing drugs and it sometimes seems the contest is as much between rival chemists and pharmacologists.

At a local level, officials and parents involved in junior sporting competitions are tormented by the conflicting demands of fair play and winning at all costs, especially when vocal “Lombardi” devotees dominate the sidelines. For many parents and children the pressure to perform is too much - they give up on sport altogether, a most unfortunate trend in view of rising concerns about obesity.

The Olympic creed is under threat and needs all the support it can get from people believing sport to be character-building and life-enhancing, not just the “moral equivalent of war” as William James had it a century ago. We need to affirm the value of participation in all kinds of sport, at all levels, allied with a revision of Lombardi’s creed.

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We must regard the athlete in competition with other athletes but also with themselves, striving to overcome fear and doubt, fighting to win a battle with their inner demons, doing the very best they can.

We must celebrate the true Olympic spirit; to insist taking part is more important than the result. The most impressive performers, the real winners, are those scoring personal bests, whether or not they claim a place on the podium.

Historically, Australians have a mixed record in the way we play and support. Some of our most successful teams earned the reputation of “ugly Australians”, occupying the territory between confidence and arrogance.

Against that, when US boxer Jimmy Clabby was beaten by our own Les Darcy in 1915, he was cheered to the rafters making his way from the ring at Sydney Stadium. He told a journalist: “Your people are great sports. Nowhere else but Australia have they time for a beaten man.”

But maybe the truest evocation of Australian Olympic spirit was John Landy’s final of the mile at the 1956 Australian Championships. In a performance named by the Sport Australia Hall of Fame as the nation’s finest sporting moment of the 20th century, Landy accidentally spiked Ron Clarke, stopped to see if he was seriously injured, apologised and rejoined the contest.

The most important thing in the Olympics is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. You might not conquer but you must fight well.

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First published in ABCs Unleashed on August 11, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.



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About the Author

Rafe Champion brings the grafting qualities of the opening batsman and the cunning of the offspin bowler to the task of routing dogmatists, protectionists and other riff-raff who stand in the way of peace, freedom and plenty. He has a website and he blogs at Catallaxy and also at The History of Australian and New Zealand Thought. For more about Rafe visit here. All of his posts on Catallaxy for 2007 can be found at this link. Not all the links work and some need to be cut and pasted into the browser.

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