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Wimbledon, the amateur ideal and the Global Financial Crisis

By John Töns - posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Wimbledon is here, strawberries and cream, rainy days, sunny days, punctuated by periods of truly breath taking tennis. The world’s very best players will battle it out over the next two weeks. The winners will, in addition to being crowned the champion, receive a sizeable cheque for his or her efforts.

A cursory glance at the Wimbledon website reveals that there are about 500 players who will be strutting their stuff in the various competitions. What is more for every single one of those 500 players competing there are a further 10 or so who had Wimbledon aspirations but were unable to demonstrate that they were good enough to compete at this the 125th championship. It is tempting to think that it is the winner’s cheque alone that motivates players but is this really so?

It was not always so. There was a time when Wimbledon was the sole preserve of amateurs. The idea of actually paying tennis players was an anathema, players competed for the glory and that was more than sufficient, or so they said. By the 1950s it was clear that for Wimbledon to survive it would need to allow professional players to compete.


It is not difficult to see why tennis had to embrace professionalism. The costs associated with competing on the world tennis circuit are well beyond the means of the average person. Therefore an international amateur competition would be unable to attract the best players, just the best players of independent means. By allowing commercial sponsorship it opened the tournament to the world’s best players.

So are all 500 or so players in this year’s competition motivated by the pay cheque? No doubt some of them are but can anyone seriously believe that it is the final cheque that motivates a Williams, Nadal or Federer. The financial incentives are undoubtedly substantial. It is not just the winner’s cheque but the sponsorship that flows from it that make tennis such a lucrative sport. Yet if it was the money only that was the motivation then I would suggest that none of these players would ever have been in a position to collect a winner’s cheque.

Let us return to the 5000 or so Wimbledon hopefuls, those anonymous players none of us has ever heard of and in all probability, never will. What motivates these players? Are they motivated by the dream of the untold riches that fall to those players who are ranked in the top 20 or so? Or, are they motivated by a confidence in their own ability to beat the best of the best? Do these hopefuls go to bed dreaming of large cheques or are they dreaming of playing and beating their idols?

I am sure part of the dream is earning enough money so that they can spend all their time doing what they like best; playing tennis. But if their only motivation is the winner’s cheque then their chances of even coming close to stepping out at Wimbledon are very slim indeed. No doubt there will be a small minority for whom financial security is the only motivation but for the real champions the motivation is the challenge posed by the game itself. In a sense, although no longer amateurs, players in the top echelon still subscribe to the amateur ideal of competition for the sake of competition. For them the real challenge is to take on the best of the best. It is this challenge that keeps them coming back year after year.

Nadal is reputedly worth $100 million. Once you command that sort of income then finance alone is not a sufficient motivation. If Nadal had been solely motivated by financial security would he still be able to motivate himself enough to push his body through the pain barrier? Of course not; income is important but the real challenge for Nadal is exactly the same as it has always been and that is to compete and win against the best. Nadal at the peak of his profession is no different to any of the other Wimbledon hopefuls. The kid who is sleeping rough dreaming of beating Nadal is no different to Nadal , both are motivated by the need to be the best tennis player in the world.

So how does this relate to the Global Financial Crisis? The world of business is really no different to Wimbledon. Successful businesses need sound financial management and a keen eye on profit but if that is the sole motivator then they will possibly fail. Individuals who set up a business as a means of getting rich soon learn that these businesses rarely succeed. Successful businesses irrespective of size have at their heart a commitment to whatever they do. If you look at the business success stories you will find that they will all have one thing in common and that is a commitment to the worth of whatever the function of the business may be.


Yet increasingly such businesses are becoming rare. Many businesses today are overly focussed on financial management and profit with the consequence that all the energy of the senior executives is directed at finding new opportunities to make a quick profit. They are businesses with no soul, no commitment to the contribution they are making toward a better world, just a keen eye toward making money.

A successful business will see profit as but one indicator of success. Throughout the world there are increasingly rare examples of businesses that are committed to making a positive contribution to creating a better world. The global financial crisis was precipitated in part because profit had become the only yard stick by which success could be measured.

The temptation is to argue that if only governments were better at regulating business then events like the GFC would not occur. But surely we too bear a responsibility? When Woolworth’s and Coles decided to sell milk at a $1 per litre there was no shortage of people choosing the milk at that price even though there was ample evidence that the price was unsustainable. It would appear it was just a means of further reducing the dairy farmer’s margins and as a result, their profitability. Rivers regularly advertises items of clothing at ridiculously low prices and many go out buy them. There are countless stories of how these cheap clothes are made, cheap labour, often child labour. This keeps people in the third world in poverty so we can buy cheap products.

We cannot hold the corporate sector alone responsible for the GFC when we are so clearly willing accomplices. All of us with superannuation expect our fund managers to generate a good return on our investment. Do any of us demand that our superannuation is invested only in ethical products?

So what can we do? How can we change the world? Perhaps as we settle down to watch Wimbledon we can remind ourselves of those kids who go there with dreams in their eyes and then as we watch the commercials in between games we might ask ourselves what sort of world is being sold to us. If we are happy with that world then just keep watching. If not then start talking to your neighbours about making a difference in your local community. Ask yourself, what sort of future are we building for ourselves if we continue this way? Simply by asking questions and seeking answers we can create a better world. For to create a better world we first have to create a vision of that world.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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