It has been a summer of almost constant sport, from football’s Euro’s to Wimbledon onto the Olympic Games in Tokyo via The British and Irish Lions challenging the world champions, South Africa. This is without mentioning various cricketing tournaments and hard fought Formula One Grand Prix’s plus the Tour de France - do I need to carry on?
As someone who enjoys all kinds of sport, becoming slightly square-eyed in the process, I have taken it upon myself to watch closely, if not study, the reactions of those who win or lose. Indeed, it is more subtle than that because those who lose - yet were supposed to win, often show very different emotions from those who were seen to have little chance of winning or coming first in their particular sport.
Much has been said and written about the vile attacks on black England footballers who suffered horrible online abuse after the Euro Cup Final against Italy. However, this unpleasant fact rather obscured the fact that after the game many of the England players either refused their runner-up medals or quickly cast them away as if they were an insult to them.
Two views could be taken on this action I suppose - it could be that their disappointment at the result overcame their sportsmanship on coming second, or perhaps more accurately they believe that there is no worth in not winning or indeed coming second in any sporting endeavour. Anyway, this sort of graceless behaviour would have condemned them as bad losers on any other sporting stage and if it had happened at a school sports day, angry teachers and parents might well have had something to say at this crass and childlike behaviour.
Whilst watching the Olympic Games and the medal ceremonies that follow various events, it is revealing how those who don’t win cope (or don’t cope) with their sporting disappointments. From a wry smile to floods of tears, the full gamut of human reactions to (sporting) failure are there to be witnessed. Indeed some social scientists might admit to this tableaux of joyous victory and dejected defeat is even more interesting than the sports event itself, given the fact that the Olympics are sometimes dominated by sports of marginal interest to most of the viewing public.
I often write of ‘people watching’ in these columns and there is no better outlet for this compunction than at a major sporting event. Take for instance the recent debate about the withdrawal from the games of the former olympic gymnastics champion, Simone Biles. After completing only one exercise in the women’s team final she landed awkwardly and made her lowest Olympic vault score.
To be fair to Ms Biles, she could have followed the ‘line’ scripted for her that she was injured, but - she told the post event news conference that her mental wellbeing was more important than chasing a gold medal. Nevertheless, the downside of this brave decision of hers was that the rest of her ‘team’ were left in olympic limbo and were apparently non too pleased at her decision.
She hasn’t been alone in this sporting dilemma, as the leading tennis player Naomi Osaka, has recently withdrawn from Wimbledon in similar circumstances and who can forget the latest British tennis prodigy Emma Raducanu’s mental disintegration during a tough match after she had delighted a nation with her skill and charm just a few days earlier.
I think we all like to hear of sporting heroism and unselfishness don’t you? On the track and field, or on the roads of host cities, humbling stories are remembered and told of athletes helping other injured athletes cross-the-line in acts of memorable sportsmanship. Alas, at the other end of the sportsmanship spectrum we have multimillionaire footballers rolling around in fake agony at the merest touch, and professional boxers ‘trash talking’ to their opponents in the hope that this might sell more tickets for their seedy and brutish agents and promoters.
Meanwhile rugby players have only just been brought-to-book for supposed tackles that are more akin to common assault than seeking to bring down an opponent fairly. It has struck me for many years now that sport in all its guises has become somewhat soulless. It maybe my age - but, I don’t much like English Premiership football being so dominated by foreign billionaires and faceless consortiums and the debacle that was their failed attempt at starting a European Super League will never go away - not while they hold the purse-strings anyway!
I have come a long way from asking the question
regarding the grace required to win or lose in style. For instance, is it an altogether old fashioned concept anyway and does anyone actually care about this sort of thing nowadays? It maybe that “winning is for winners” but I think that to be an incredibly narrow and self defeating concept. If you think about it, sometimes there is much more drama in defeat than in a tediously anticipated victory and the television companies that screen sport, costing huge sums of money, know that all too well. Going back to my original thoughts about being graceful and generous whether winning or losing, I guess it must be easier to look sanguine when you weren’t expected to win as opposed to not expecting to lose.
Nevertheless, these things matter. In a decade from now, the overcooked jubilation on the winners face, might look rather inappropriate compared to the studied modesty of the runners up. Do these things matter? For me, yes they do - because knowing how to win or lose is just as important as actually playing the game.