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What Truly Matters in Sport?

In 1990 two British marathon canoeists, Ivan Lawler and Graham Burns, were awarded the highest UNESCO sporting honour – ‘The Pierre de Coubertin Award for Act of Fair Play’, for their display the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. At that race the British pair were favourites alongside the Danish pair of Thor Nielsen and Lars Koch. In the previous World Championships the Danes had won gold and the British silver. At this race, in the final stages with both teams well out ahead of the pack, the British pair were overtaking the Danish boat when they noticed the Danes were having trouble with a dislodged rudder. They could easily have swept past and claimed the gold without the Danes having a chance to catch them. Instead, they stopped up to help fix their opponents problem. Both boats then picked up the race to the finish line and the Danes ended up beating the British by a single second! Speaking about the incident many years later, Ivan Lawler said that there was barely a thought in his mind to leave their opponents floundering in order to grab the gold medal. He had completely internalised the fact that the true value of the competition was in testing themselves against their fiercest rivals. Winning gold would not have the same meaning if it came without real challenge. Even though he collected five World Championship golds throughout his long and outstanding career, Lawler remembers that race as the one he is most proud of.

Winning at sport will not single-handedly fulfill all your needs and desires. Nor will it make you at peace with yourself or bring you long-term self-esteem.  This is a common misconception, continuously perpetuated by sport culture and media and that leads to a huge amount of unnecessary suffering. Both those who ‘fail’ to win gold, as well as those who succeed at coming first, are susceptible to the plight of believing all their dreams will be fulfilled if they can capture that pinnacle result. Finishing second in the Athens Olympics, a result deemed to be ‘a failure to win’ by many onlookers, was the catalyst for Cath Bishop, the author of The Long Win, to explore what the whole experience meant for her and how winners and losers are viewed dramatically differently by society, based on narrow-minded criteria. This journey led her to uncover significant anomalies, contradictions and inefficiencies that stem from putting winners on such a high pedestal, to the detriment of all others. She alighted on the concept of Long Win Thinking as a broader, more effective measure of success over the long-term that could replace our current short-sighted understanding of what it means to win.

The problem is that the vision of glory is so alluring, the promise of achieving what we have trained for and dreamed of for long years shines so brightly. The images we see of euphoric victors in the moments after their victory and the attention and accolades lavished on them afterwards convinces us that it must be worth it. But we don’t follow their inner experience for the weeks and months before and after. That is where the more important lessons are hidden. The medal, the championship, the victory, does not suddenly transform the athlete into a different, eternally content and happy being. They remain the same person, just with a little extra silverware for their collection and depending on the sport, perhaps some more financial security and more recorded interviews for their portfolio. But these spoils are a poor surrogate for the riches of mind and body that many athletes expect will come their way.

There are countless examples of world-class, gold medal winners who find themselves bereft and sometimes even depressed shortly after their winning event. There comes a sinking realisation, having reached their pinnacle and there being no place higher to go, and are left thinking ‘Is that it’? Johnny Wilkinson, one of the greatest all-time English rugby players, had a sporting career that every young rugby player dreams of. The culmination of this career was in 2003 at the Rugby World Cup final where England were playing against Australia, in Australia. With the score tied at 17-17 and just a matter of seconds remaining in extra-time, Wilkinson scored a drop goal that sealed the victory for England, and all-time legendary status for Wilkinson himself. Speaking of that time, he said in an interview with Shortlist Magazine - “I walked into the sunset after that game, the credits came up and the next morning I woke up and could not have felt more empty”.

The euphoria of that moment of victory was indeed intense, but it had already started wearing off mere minutes after he made the winning kick.

This is the fate that awaits those who place too much emphasis and expectation on arriving at the destination and have too little appreciation for the journey that took them there and awareness of the truly important things they encounter along the way. Perhaps in striving for excellence they even sacrificed some of those things that would have brought them the meaning and innate self-satisfaction they thought would come from their eventual triumph.

The True Athlete Philosophy has been created to address some of the elements of an athletic career which can provide that deeper meaning and leave an athlete feeling proud of what they have achieved, whatever their final medal tally or win/loss ratio may be.

Such elements are:

  • A focus on self-development through identifying and exploring values in life and sport.

  • Giving back to the sport or community and being a positive role model or mentor for those that come after.

  • Committing fully and sacrificing personal interest for that of a team, working towards shared goals with aligned values and missions.

  • Fostering meaningful relationships with teammates, opponents, coaches and other members of staff or the team.

It should be patently clear reading through these elements that none of them hinge, even in the slightest, on the sporting results achieved. These elements speak to some of the most intrinsic and deeply-rooted fundamentals of what it is to be human – self-improvement and learning, belonging to a tribe or team, being of service to your tribe, and connecting on a deeply personal level with fellow human beings. That is why they hold such a special position in the creation of meaning for us in life and therefore, also sport. The concept of ‘winning’ is a far more modern aspect of the lived experience. Indeed the original meaning of the word was to labour, toil and gain, and the idea of winning being about victory in a contest only came into popular culture in the mid-1800’s. The fact of coming first in a sporting event does not have nearly the same connection to our biological nature and therefore, holds none of the same depth of meaning to us. This puts the current cultural obsession with winning and winners in a damning light as we have been glorifying and prioritising, to the exclusion of all else, that which will bring us only a fraction of the potential return on our investment and sacrifice.


This is an excerpt from Becoming a True Athlete - a practical philosophy for flourishing through sport. You can purchase the book here or you can read the prologue here (which journalist and podcaster, Simon Mundie, proclaimed to be the best prologue he had read!)

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