More Important Than The Gold

The following commentary by Joe Hunsaker was published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1996 leading up to the Atlanta Olympics.

Despite their revered tradition, the Olympic Games can’t escape the sins of society, nor can they avoid the debate regarding the role of athletic competition in our society. From the highest levels of professional sports to the neighborhood little league team, competitive athletic programs are frequently tainted with scandal, exploitation, and the overzealous pursuit of winning.

It all makes people question, and rightfully so, the value of competitive sports. What are we teaching our children when we encourage them to get involved in athletics? What are the lessons young people learn from competition?  

I was involved in athletic competition through most of my childhood, and well into my young adulthood; and until recently, I never gave much thought to the value of this experience in my life beyond some vague notion of a “winning attitude.”

There are far more important lessons, I have since learned.

A few years ago, I attended a reunion of my University of Illinois swim team. Ours had been a pretty good, though not great team in the country back in the late 1950s, and we had enjoyed some pretty exciting accomplishments.

Most of us, it turned out, had gone on to enjoy success in the business world as well, and it wasn’t a surprise to discover that, reflective of the individual nature of the sports in which we competed, many had achieved their success in professional practice, academic institutions or as leaders of their own companies.

Young, sleek athletes once, we now gathered in a banquet room, gray and balding  with bodies no longer decently suited for Speedos, recalling our most glorious accomplishments, our most outrageous exploits, and generally enjoying the type of evening that makes for great beer commercials and terribly bored spouses.

Amid the banter and boasting, though, we also found the time to reflect more thoughtfully on our competitive experiences, and the role they had played in shaping the directions we had taken in the 30 years since.

A consensus quickly formed around three recurring qualities.

Of course there was talk of the motivation derived from the competitive experience itself, an acknowledgment that testing one’s performance against another continually fueled improvement.

The quality of “courage” also gained much support. Several people recalled the first time they had stepped onto a starting block, the fear of the unknown fluttering uncomfortably in their bellies like a trapped bird, and how with each successive competition the fear turned more to confidence.

It was when someone mentioned “discipline,” though, that the most resounding chorus of agreement was heard. The discipline involved in training, the dedication required to pursue rigorous practice regimens was, we all agreed, a key to accomplishment in the “real world.” And, while discipline frequently resulted in winning, it was most valuable after losing. “That’s really it,” one teammate mused. “It wasn’t about  winning; it was learning how to lose without being defeated.” And, though I’d never thought of it before, when it was said, I knew he was right. We all did.

Like my former teammates, I had been fortunate to achieve some amount of national recognition. Yet, the winning, the recognition, really didn’t have a substantial effect on who I was then or what I had become 30 years hence. But the experience of losing and not being overwhelmed, of learning from my first adolescent swim meet how to get out of the water, towel off and do better the next time–that part of the competitive experience had been integral in molding the business person, the husband and the father I have become.

Competition is a fundamental human experience. It is inherent in the evolution of our species and, for that matter, of all things living. Every plant and animal competes against its own and other species for light, for oxygen, water, food. We are who we are and what we are because our ancestors competed more or less successfully for food and shelter. Many wonderful people admit they aren’t really  “into competition.” They are, nonetheless, in competition.

So when criticism falls upon competitive athletics, it should more rightfully be directed to questioning whether or not our focus is too intent upon winning at all costs. Whether at the Little League, high-school or collegiate levels, the real value in competitive athletics is not in the winning, but in the competing.

A century ago, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympic Movement, said “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.  The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”

As we watch the Games in Atlanta, we will certainly be treated to the very best of the world of competitive athletes. Sadly, we may also be subjected to some of the worst aspects of competitive athletics. But if through the way we handle the spectacle of the Games they fail to live up to their high ideals, that is a separate issue from the value the athletes themselves will be able to absorb from the competitive experience. Win or lose, the Olympic athletes have competed. And, like the countless other competitors struggling in far less visible circumstances–young athletes,  musicians, artists, writers, scientists and academicians pursuing equally demanding disciplines–they will assuredly take from their commitment to competition lessons that will serve them well the rest of their lives.

 

 

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