Know ye not that they which run in a race run all , but one receiveth the prize? So run , that ye may obtain . And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things . Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run , not as uncertainly; so fight I , not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection : lest that by any means , when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (I Cor ix.24-27)
I am not a sportsman.
In fact one might make the analogy that I understand sport as well as Richard Dawkins understands the need for Religion. I'm sorry, I just don't get it. Cricket, Foot Ball, Ice Hockey, Basket Ball, Dwile Flonking et c. leave me completely cold. I don't get dancing either. I didn't watch the opening of the Olympics. I don't get the thrill of winning nor the disappointment of losing. Medals mean very little.
One thing that I do get, though, is that people get a thrill of winning and a disappointment of losing. I understand that people do benefit from sports, find great comfort from the team and find some direction in their lives. In some ways, perhaps, I'm missing out on some remarkable experiences, but then we are all made differently. That's where the analogy with Richard Dawkins breaks down. I don't see sport as a force for evil, by any means, though some aspects do disturb me.
I read something today that saddened me very deeply. The young chap pictured above is Tom Daley who I believe is a swimmer. Apparently, he missed out on a medal, and has now been at the receiving end of some absolutely atrocious comments for not achieving his goal. I am led to believe that his motivation is to win a medal, not only for his country, but also for the memory of his dead father. Noble sentiments. So how is it then possible that someone can broadcast the message to this young man in his disappointment that he has let down his country and his dead father by not winning the medal? I may not quite see the connection between medals and glory, but I cannot understand why he needed to be pilloried like this.
Surely Tom's efforts and training and intention and desire has been to do well at every stage, to give of his all and to discipline himself carefully. But he is as fallible as any one of us. If he has not achieved a medal, then it I very much doubt that it is for want of dedication.
What then has happened?
I think it is a question of identity and identification. From what I see from my students and ex-students in their rather more playful rivalries between football teams, there is very much an identification of the individual with that team - an extension of oneself into the team and, given the number of Chelsea foot ball shirts I see, an extension of the team into oneself. One shares in the successes and defeats of the team.
However, there is a problem. One is not actually part of the team that we support, otherwise we would be actually competing, not cheering from the sidelines. There is a necessary distance between the supporter and the competitor which cannot be realised physically. However, there is an emotional investment which perhaps the supporter and competitor share more fully. When the competitor fails to achieve the goal, she suffers great disappointment, frustration and perhaps some (largely unjustified, in my opinion) anger at herself for failing. If these emotions are shared, then the supporter must feel these sensations too though they will not necessarily correlate with the emotions felt by the athlete. The danger then is turning these emotions onto the competitor. This is what has happened. Anger and emotion have not been controlled. Poor Tom has become the unwarranted object of emotions that are not his and which have not been controlled by a disciplined mind. His Troll is rightly to be censured and sanctioned for not exercising a fragment of the self-discipline and self-control that Tom has.
Rudyard Kipling reminds us:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same...
First place and last place are as much imposters as Triumph and Disaster. It takes reason and discipline and thought to realise this especially when one is caught up in the moment. The trouble is that the Media whip up the emotions so readily that each of us does get caught up more emotionally than is actually good for us, and I am as guilty of being emotionally whipped up by the Media as any. I very much get the impression that the team for the UK Olympics is being pressured to succeed, not supported, by the Media and subsequently by the ordinary supporters.
Support requires a stable base, standing still, like a diving board. It is the diver who uses the diving board to make his dive. It is not the job of the board to push back otherwise it ruins the dive. If people are going to support Tom, then they should let him find confidence in their support and acceptance of whatever the outcome should be. When we support a team we should be aware and respectful of the distance that separates us from our competitor however much our emotions seek to bridge that distance.
I gather that Tom will be swimming again at some point. I certainly wish him very well: he has my admiration for his self-discipline and training and I am sure that his father would be very proud of him whatever the outcome. I sincerely pray that he will get more joy out of his next competition than can be provided by winning any gold medal.