Anglican newsletter - October
The Olympics/Paralympics are now well and truly over. They were a delight, not just for the sporting prowess, but, as everyone else has already said, for the joy and pleasure with which they were presented, not least by all the volunteers. The boost to the regard in which this country is held abroad is real and considerable. Indeed, we are mining a really rich vein of British success in all sorts of sports at this time.
So, why not throw in a sour note? Not what I particularly want to do – and I hope I don’t actually do so – but there are other aspects other than the glow we are (or were in early September) all basking in. Rather bizarrely, it seems that our national Olympic chief athletics coach has resigned because Team GB did not come up to scratch – not enough medals. Indeed, more significantly, fewer than 20% of our Track & Field athletes achieved their personal bests!
But neither that test, nor the number of medals won is the real test of the success of the team or of its individual members. The real test, which cannot be measured objectively of course, is - did they do their best on the day and did they comply with the Olympic oath – basically a good spirit and fair play. I suspect that most of us will have felt that most of them did do that. It’s actually difficult to imagine how any British competitor, in the face of the extraordinary support they received from the crowds at every Olympic venue, could not have done their utmost.
But even so, there were clear examples of poor sportsmanship – such as the badminton teams that were disqualified for deliberating trying to lose their matches. I suppose it’s bad form to mention the British sprint cycling team, who eventually won gold, but who cheated in their first round and got away with it! And, of course, it was OK for Ben Ainslie to win gold in one of the sailing classes, by deliberating trying, not to win some of his races, but to make sure that his main competitor (a Dane, if I remember rightly) lost by a bigger margin than he did. That was OK, because it is a well established tactic in sailing to take the wind out of the others’ sails.
Like in much human activity, the objective is to win, usually at some cost, but hopefully not too often at all costs. When we play Monopoly with our children, Dads more than Mums feel impelled to win more often than not, whereas Mums, more than Dads, feel impelled to let the children win more often. Working together two parents bring up children with healthy, balanced approaches to competition and struggle in their community.
Unfortunately too many of us do not live lives of generosity and fairness. The national game, football, is regarded by many as not really being a sport any more – it’s just, a little like Big Brother, a place for exhibitionists to show off and behave badly. Recently, I heard it argued that this sort of comment is unfair and that the good, sportsmanlike behaviour of cricketers and golfers and rugby union players is because they tend to be well-off, well educated people for whom the whole of life is just a game, whereas footballers and their fans come from the ‘working class’ where life is tough. That argument might hold more water if one did not recognise that that is precisely the same source of recruitment for rugby league, the toughest game of all and very working class in its origins in the less well endowed parts of the country – their behaviour on the pitch and in the stands is fantastic!
Evidently, whatever our upbringing and the type of background we come from, if the group we are with wishes, then we can get examples of good behaviour or of the reverse. We almost invariably have the choice of our friends and associates, we decide what clubs and societies we join. But, even when setting our own environments, we still have to make our own personal effort if we are to be worth anything.
To win an Olympic Gold Medal is an extraordinary achievement. But the thousands who tried just as hard and did not win (and by definition all can’t win) are to be commended as much. And the tens of thousands who tried as hard but could not get into their national teams are equally to be admired.
The winners or leaders in every sphere set the standards that we all aspire to in our own chosen areas of endeavour. And that is really the point. We are poor indeed if we make no effort to do what we do as well as we can. And we can all see the examples of how well we can do, if we are really so minded.
The Oly-Paralympic spectacle was truly marvellous – firstly as a spectacle, but more importantly as an example of what can be done with determination, effort and heart (notwithstanding the inevitable few examples of bad sportsmanship). St Paul was a notoriously hard worker, who travelled tirelessly and assiduously to do his business. He demanded that his followers run a good race – he never asked them to beat anyone, except themselves. But he set them the example, the standard – he was a medallist, although he would not have given himself the gold.
We preach to each other about what we need to do in life and how to be good. But it is actually in all our own hearts and we set our own standards, which are entirely up to ourselves and our own consciences. Most of us know the story of the film Chariots of Fire. One of its subplots is the true story of Eric Liddell who, for reasons that most of us nowadays find somewhat quaint, could not race on a Sunday and had to withdraw his entry into the 1924 Olympics. It is also a fact, brought out in the film, that he was invited to run instead in a different event and then won that gold medal. He followed his conscience (nobody else’s) and did his absolute best. He then gave up athletics altogether in order to become a missionary in China. He died there in 1945 of a brain tumour in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp , having earlier refused to leave his work in the camp as part of a prisoner exchange.
I won’t forget the 2012 Olympics – I hope I remained inspired by the courage and efforts of those who competed and by the welcome and good neighbourliness of those who made it all work. I hope I can be more than a mere couch potato.