There is more to sport than competition and survival. The real purpose of sport lies in connecting with one’s inner being, so that one does not get disillusioned by failure.
As a person passionate about endurance sports, I cannot but feel a sense of trepidation and serious concern about recent news related to the most celebrated cyclist of all times. Lance Armstrong’s public confession may be billed as a story of intrigue, deceit, conspiracy, righteousness and redemption, depending on the stance that you wish to ally with. Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey communicates aspects of a new world phenomena related to the notions of competition, influence, greed and most importantly the accompanying re-drawing of lines of ethics and integrity. That there is a dirty nexus — between players, achievers, specialists, media moguls and believers — in the way this game is played in contemporary society, is a cause of concern and trepidation.
Allow me to draw an analogy to argue my contention. In the mid 1990’s, in India, the Harshad Mehta scandal demonstrated that ethical practices could be redrawn in the pursuit of success in a liberalised economy. India proved Mehta correct. State apathy, poor regulation and a historically-stratified culture has engendered new forms of divisions between the rich and the poor. Several scams later, participation in an expanding economy is fraught with equal doses of cynicism and skepticism.
The sub-prime lending crisis of 2006 affected a number of families and institutions across the globe. However, justice for middle and low income investors notwithstanding, the architects of that crisis have reportedly earned personal rewards in the form of palatial houses and fancier cars. Notions of privilege and superiority have been timelessly used to perpetuate social inequalities. And excellence has been the proverbial rationale to determine shifting notions of success. To justify competitive advantage, ethics have often been conveniently redefined. In sports and free trade we find the greatest illusions of fair exchange and success — from individual deceit to match fixing scandals, from the destruction of local hardy crops to hegemony on Wall Street, and now the Internet.
The athletic hero publicly confessed that he was part of a cogwheel of institutions and relationships that trapped many. His only fault was that he could not resist temptation and believed that was right for him, given that he is fiercely competitive and a cancer survivor. What leads a young person with ambition to convert his desire for excellence into a disposition of greed, winning at any cost?
The root of such a disposition lie in our social institutions and unrelenting cultural contradictions. For a young adolescent growing up in today’s world, morality as practiced by the adult society threatens the development of a balanced identity. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest is evoked repeatedly in the modern man’s definition of the self and other. The outcome is the creation of new tools for self-preservation at regular intervals. Virtues of justice, duty and the common good become rhetorical words of exchange for school debates and essay competitions. In educational institutions, co-curricular and sporting opportunities teach more about one-upmanship than cooperation and co-existence. Consequently, young generations are living with and contributing to complex sociological shifts — an ‘evolutionary’ expectation’.
The number of choices available for young people are limited — be a winner or a loser or admire celebrities because that is the easiest and accepted way of completing one’s self image and that of an unequal society. In order to envision a more positive and responsible side of human nature, each generation must be conscious about what it transfers as its code of ethics to the next. Central to the transfer is adhering to ethics and not creating structural or cultural illusions.
What kind of social structures will give rise to practices that are inclusive and not exclusionary, nurturing and not decimating? The young perceive traditional structures of order and regulation as deeply flawed and archaic. They look for opportunities to redefine notions of fair play — in the playground, in politics, society and economics.
Role of sports
Sports is fundamental to human development in many different ways. Healthy physical development is the primordial gift of nature to find and maintain balance in one’s energies. When the physical is out of balance, psychological, social and cognitive domains are compromised. People who have for long been associated with endurance sports know this because of the way their mental and emotional faculties work.
Socially, sports has the power to influence character and be all-embracing, leaving aside media-driven jingoism and chauvinism. Ironically, endurance athletes usually attribute their motivation for excellence to team work, team play and team progress. Winning an event is only a small part of the larger picture. For young people to connect with their inner being and their place as world citizens, it is important that they connect with the real purpose of sport and not get disillusioned by failure or deceit.
Change will have to come from educational institutions and allied social institutions (of training, testing, advocacy, media, etc.). To prevent perverted forms of trickery from taking root in competitive events, we must question popular notions of competition, cooperation, excellence, inclusion and co-existence.
For some, competition is the motivator. For many, the driving forces are camaraderie and discovering human potential. The story of competition and survival is a small part of the larger picture. There is more to sports, human exchange and ethics. It would be pertinent for us to question: competition at what cost, for whom, how much, who defines it and at what age groups? Too much exposure to competition early, can give rise to arrogance and a false sense of the self. Unchecked arrogance usually leads to the development of unethical paths to achieve success. As long as winning is an exertion of power, competition will rear a nasty head.
Where there is a challenge to find excellence, strong-willed people will climb mountains and swim across oceans. Endurance sports is about finding new limits, through will power, training and team gusto. Let’s keep it simple and strong.
Sunil works as Director Education, Shikshantar and Director, Shiksharth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org