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Sport must be the winner


English teachers are always exhorting pupils not to resort to clichés, but to come up with meaningful, expressive, clear words and phrases to get a point across. Love is blind, tomorrow is another day, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, have all been defined as clichés in that they are over-used and trite expressions —they have been used so often they are no longer original or interesting, but rather reveal a lazy or unimaginative mind.

Cliches are prolific when it comes to writing or speaking about sport. We are told that the manager “has lost the dressing room” (really? He should go down the corridor and it is the last door on the left); that the coach will “Take one match at a time” (can’t they play two matches at the same time…?); that it was a “game of two halves” (it is quite difficult to have one of three halves); that a player “has a cultured left foot” (the left foot went to university, it seems) plus many more. Another one that has been described as a tiresome cliché is that “Sport was the winner in that match”.

Gael Clichy is a former French international soccer player, winner of three English Premier League titles with Arsenal and Manchester City who is now content to play in the Swiss Super League in the twilight of his career, having previously played in Turkey. He plays wherever he can, for big club or small, no doubt for his love of the game. Perhaps soccer is the winner in his career.

A Roman poet, Martial (not to be confused with a current French soccer striker Anthony Martial), once described a fierce battle that two expert gladiators contested until they both conceded at the precise same time, causing the writer to report that “two men fought each other and both were winners”. That might seem strange as it could equally be argued that both were losers as neither one won. How could both be winners? They were winners because they were prepared to be losers. Is that when sport is the winner?

We do well to ask the question is: is sport meant to be the winner? How can sport (be it soccer, rugby, cricket, basketball, any) be the winner? Can sport be the winner when a team is the winner? Who or what is the loser if sport is the winner? Come to think of it, can rugby be the winner if it is soccer that is actually being played? Do we even want sport to be the winner?

We are told that in a contest there can only be one winner (except when it is a draw)! Is sport the winner when neither team wins? But if sport is to be the winner, who or what then is the loser? Is no one the loser? Is everyone the loser? Are we saying that everyone is a winner, no matter what happens, in order to make sport the winner? No, that will only show there are actually many losers, bad losers at that, people who are extremely unhappy that their claim to be the winner is denied simply because everyone tried hard or just pitched up. No, sport is not the winner there. No-one is the winner there. Everyone is the loser, including sport.

Then what do people mean when they use the old cliché that sport is the winner? Is sport the winner when everyone involved in the game has enjoyed it, no matter the result? Already there will be readers jumping out of their seats and claiming that no one can enjoy sport when they lose – wrong! People can enjoy a match even when they lose – but that does not make sport the winner. If some people enjoy the match, is sport the winner – after all, some have enjoyed it and therefore the purpose is fulfilled? Is sport the winner when everyone has played hard, well and intensely, no matter the result? Is sport the winner when everyone has played competitively, fairly and sportingly, without any histrionics, dirty play, arguing, cheating?

In contrast, when is sport the loser? Is it when one team so outplays and outclasses the opposition that there is little entertainment or education? If such situations occur, is anyone or anything really the winner? The point and value of the sport has gone when that happens – nothing has been learned or gained. The bottom line is this: sport can be the winner; indeed, sport must surely be the winner. The task of a school sporting coach is to ensure that sport is the winner, more than his own team. After all, no one wants to be around losers, so no one will play sport if it is not the winner. That is not a cliché; ask Gael Clichy. Touche!

  • 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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