How Much Sport is Too Much?

The world’s greatest annual sporting event was completed recently. After three gruelling weeks, a star-studded field of the world’s elite in the sport of cycling crossed the line at the Champs-Élysées in Paris, France. I speak, of course, of the Tour De France, an annual event which sees more than one million spectators line the roadside on each of the 21 days to cheer on their favourite cyclist and team.

In 2011, Australia had high hopes for Cadel Evans, who became the first Australian to win this iconic event. Things didn’t go so well for Cadel in the following year however, and despite giving it his absolute best and overcoming illness and mechanical troubles, he finished 7th in a field of 198 of the world’s best riders. 

This result is, by any measure, an outstanding result. Yet, I was incredulous when I heard a Nine News reporter describe it as Cadel’s “Tour de Failure”. Newspaper reports followed suit, expressing disappointment that Cadel had ‘failed’.

We should have been celebrating Cadel’s outstanding results and admiring his feat of endurance in surviving (and excelling) in what is arguably the most demanding sporting event on the planet, but all the media could talk about was the fact that Cadel hadn’t come first.

Something rarely seen in professional sport happened in the Tour de France. As Cadel battled over one of the steep mountain stages, a spectator threw thumb tacks over the road. This caused him to have no less than three punctures in the space of a kilometre and his chances of winning the tour slipped cruelly out of his reach. Hearing of Cadel’s misfortune, Bradley Wiggins, the then leader, got the consensus of the rest of the riders and slowed the race down so that Cadel could re-join the pack. 

It was a wonderful sporting gesture and Wiggins is to be admired for recognising that there are some things bigger than sport; some principles that are far more important than winning. I hope that in the years to come, Wiggin’s gesture will be remembered to be as important as his victory.

Unfortunately, Wiggin’s gesture is rare these days, and nowhere is our national obsession with winning more evident than at the Olympic Games. This obsession spoils the games for me, and the Olympic goal of competing to do your best is overshadowed by the need to walk away with a gold medal.

I believe this has a profound influence on our young people. At the last Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021, it seemed to me that if you won a gold medal you were ‘worthy’; you had done your country proud. However, if you achieved anything less, your efforts didn’t count. No interview, no sponsorship, no magazine deals – nothing. Sadly, several of our athletes achieved personal bests and this didn’t even rate a mention.

The message was clear; winning is everything, and if you don’t win, you don’t rate. As the 2008 Olympic advertisement said, “No-one remembers who came second.” Sadly, our children learn the not-so-subtle message that not winning equals failing. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that any athlete who is able to make the Olympic team is anything but a failure! 

I read a moving story about the 1968 Utah Special Olympics. Kim Peek was competing in the 50 yard dash. The other two athletes in that race were in wheelchairs, with Kim being the only runner.

As the gun sounded, Kim quickly moved ahead of the other two. He was 20 metres ahead of them with 10 metres to go and he turned to see how far behind they were. One athlete had crashed her wheelchair and the other was unable to move his. Kim stopped and went back. He freed one wheelchair athlete, who then took off towards the finish line. The other was unable to continue alone, so Kim Peek pushed her across the line. 

Kim Peek came last in that race. He was a ‘loser’, but something inside of me says he won more than he could have ever accomplished by winning a gold medal that day. In fact, Kim Peek received a standing ovation and taught every person in that stadium that there are more important things than winning. 

The story of Kim Peek highlights the values we esteem at Orana Steiner School. Winning in sport is a good thing and something we should strive for, but it is not the ultimate goal of competing. Our students can learn so much more through active and healthy participation in sport. They learn physical skills, teamwork, perseverance, and how to accept victory with grace and humility. 

They also learn to cope with defeat; and learning to handle defeat with grace and humility is arguably an even more important life lesson. I believe that as parents, we need to help our children understand that defeat is a part of the preparation, understanding, discipline, perseverance and character building our children need if they are to develop into confident, resilient and well-rounded young adults. We do our children no favours if we consistently shield them from failure.

So, in 2024 when the next Olympic Games in Paris unfold, let’s remember to celebrate the sacrifices our Olympians have made, the perseverance they have developed, and the pride they have displayed in representing their country. These are the things we should honour and talk about with our children. 

Geoff Fouracre – Principal