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Contest in context

school of sport:with TIM MIDDLETON

SOME sections of social media have recently shared a small sports story from Spain where in 2012 a Basque athlete, Iván Fernández Anaya, was competing in a local cross-country race. Approaching the finish line, he was some way back in second place when the leader, Kenyan runner Abel Mutai, began to walk, believing he had already crossed the line.

When the Spanish runner caught up with the Kenyan, he did not run past him but allowed the Kenyan to cross the actual line in first place, as he recognised his rival had been the better athlete on the day. He later explained that “with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well.” He also realised that in doing so, in helping and serving a fellow competitor, his character had been enhanced considerably, more than if he had actually won.

John Landy was another runner who had a similar understanding. He was all set to be the first man to beat the elusive four-minute barrier in the Mile race when he competed in an event in Australia in 1956, but around the halfway point, he was involved in a collision which saw another runner, Ron Clarke, fall to the ground; Landy went back to check on Clarke before setting off again thirty-five yards behind the leaders and incredibly roar home to win the race, though he did not beat the record (which Roger Bannister did do a few weeks later). Even in competition he recognised the values not just of sportsmanship but equally of respect for others.

Competition in team sport especially is immensely valuable as it teaches us that we have to do our best and strive to improve because others depend on us for them to do well. It also teaches us that it is not just about ourselves but we serve a greater body by being part of a team. A wonderful example of this is found in Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, who in the Second Test against Pakistan in 1998, had reached the score of 334 not out, at the end of day two, equalling the highest score ever made by an Australian batsman, the legendary Sir Don Bradman. The next morning Taylor surprised everyone by declaring the Australian innings closed at 599 for 4, to give his team time to bowl out the opposition twice. In doing so, he thus deprived himself the chance of breaking the record, even by one run. Australian sportsmen are widely known for being fiercely competitive so the decision puzzled many yet for him it was a no-brainer – the team came first and as a result he is probably remembered more for not beating a record than for equalling it.

A player who knows he is leaving his team at the end of the season needs to know that he must perform at his highest level right to the end of the season because his team-mates’ future is at stake, even if his is not, in the same way that an employee should work flat out throughout his notice period because the future well-being of those who remain is at stake. We learn to compete in order to serve others. It could be argued that we are serving our sporting community by providing stronger opposition and therefore forcing our opponents to raise their game to try to beat us. When we compete we are in fact helping others to improve! In a similar way, we need to understand that if sport is to develop in our country we do not need just a few strong school teams but we need many, so that they each face strong opposition each week and not just occasionally; if we can beat our opponents easily we will learn very little. Thus schools should not throw around scholarships to bring the best players to their school as they are not serving the wider community. We should focus instead on the biblical exhortation and challenge to “Outdo one another in doing good.”

Competition can help us to serve, not just to survive, deprive, drive, strive or thrive. We need to learn that competition also has great value in enabling us to understand the need to serve. Sadly, however, the prevailing attitude towards competition actually militates against young people doing this, because they are told to ‘Look after Number One’, to beat others. We must ensure children are taught how to compete, in all contexts, for them to learn what is important and right. The context for the contest is found in how we treat others. Fernández Anaya’s coach, Martín Fiz, did not share his runner’s philosophy, saying that, “The gesture has made him a better person but not a better athlete. He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete.” That may be true but competition makes us more of a person. Can we not see which is more important?

l Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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