Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Pantheon and Poets as Synchronised Swimmers


I am wondering why seeing two grown men so distraught at only coming second in the double skulls is sticking in my head so much. Super Saturday brought so many scenes of great triumph for the GB team; people over coming, striving, working so hard to get the ultimate reward, a gold medal. Whilst I loved all those winning moments for the GB team I still can’t quite shake those shots of the exhausted pair as the floated on the water and just cried in front of the packed stands and afterwards in a brief painful interview with the inconsolable Zac Purchase he said,

     “The emotional side is always difficult. When you put everything in and you lose, there is no hiding place. …We’ll spend days, weeks, months, the rest of our lives, trying to work out if we could have done more.” 

    I am of course always drawn to the plucky loser, gracious in defeat, it is almost part of our cultural DNA. The maternal in me wants to hug them and say those words we say to our children when they don’t pass their driving test, get relegated to the back row of the ballet class, don’t get picked for the team, don’t get the grades they need, get pipped at the post for their dream job, “Well you did your best, that’s all you can do”. The taking part, the endeavour is what’s important not the winning, the need to make someone feel better about the situation and themselves drives us to believe that. Top athletes however want to be the best they can be but ‘the best’, measuring yourself against others’ performances, is what it is all about and the best they can be is to be first. The nature of the winning professional beast is that you do have to judge yourself and be judged by others and be found short of the mark. 

     Innate talent is a given but everything else is up for grabs. Usain Bolt may be too tall to be a sprinter but be blessed with super fast twitch muscle fibre by virtue of his genetics but that is all; the rest has to be hard work. There may be hundreds out there who could have exactly the same physical and genetic requisites but circumstance and personality and opportunity is what will make all the difference…and the need to win must be up there with the other circumstances and attributes.

     I sometimes work with children with such low self esteem that winning is never a valid option the whole of their being denies them that vision. They can rip up a picture they have drawn if you tell them how good it is. To be good at something, you first have to be comfortable with the concept of being good at something. The GB Team in general has broken through to that place where winning is not just a lovely perk of taking part, you have the right to want it and work to achieve it and be devastated if you don't achieve your goal. 

     Perhaps devastation is the price you have to pay for that level of belief. This same belief  fuels and drives athletes to train in bleak wet weather, spend hours pounding the roads or in the gym or on the track, go to bed when others are going out on the town to enjoy themselves and makes them grasp the nettle of being lonely and separated from those you love. A personal best is not the consolation prize at the top levels and even lower down it is still the wooden spoon because if you have given so much, your all, you have to believe that you are doing it so you can win and be the best. Keeping things inproportion is exactly what they are doing when they weep at not winning. Good sportsmanship does not preclude being angry at yourself for falling short of what  you dared to strive for.

     The relationship between performance and sponsorship and monetary rewards is a huge part of the equation now. Mo Farah and his family will have a better life financially because he has won Olympic gold. Jess Ennis will always have a job when her heptathlon win is just an old clip they run on TV but part of the qualities that will sustain them in their post Olympic careers is that they have been the best in the world and that being the best in any other walk of life you choose to enter is an option.

     In some countries, where young people want to have the sort of life they see top athletes having, it is acceptable to want to emulate sporting heroes and become famous because their fame is legitimised through hard work. The successful sportsman or woman have always inspired young people but in this media savy age the opportunity to be seen to do what you do best, winning, has been increased a million fold. Someone I met recently told me about their experience of watching the Kenyan athletes in the last Olympics in a Kenyan township in a school hall where satellite TV had been installed. He spoke about how nearly every child there saw a real possibility for themselves and not just a spectacle.  

     Others here who gain celebrity status through fly on the wall TV or other routes are regarded as passing fluff and tomorrow’s chip paper. Sporting heroes with their face on bill boards or advertising banks or trainers have achieved their status through ‘righteous endeavour’, they have literally sweated for it over years, their fame has longevity and cultural kudos. 
     I wonder if our excitement at having a plethora of sporting heroes to embrace now is not just about them being an inspiration for future generations to get off the sofa, switch off the computer and participate in some sport. All cultures need their mythic heroes and if they don’t have them they create them out of what the media serves up to them . Perhaps deep down we are rejoicing that we may now have, not just one or two heroes but a whole pantheon of them…there they are on top of the heap, standing on Mount Olympus smiling down at us, affirming that it is not just ok to win, it is what we have a right to want to achieve. These are not the false gods of quick media celebrity but are what our deeply engrained Protestant work ethic tells us is virtuous and so we can relax and enjoy.

     It isn’t just the younger generation that needs to be inspired, I know I need to feel it is ok to get teary when a GB sportsman or woman wins and when Zac Purchase spoke he spoke for something else in us, that regret at not winning is what you have to deal with in life because telling yourself you did the best you could is never truely consoling or quite enough. Regrets are ok so long as they don't become so deep we become dysfunctional.; hence the note of irony in this blog's name.

Writing as a competitive sport is not yet eligible for the Olympics.The various glittering poetry prizes and book awards create a thin veneer of competition about what is the best but you can’t judge poetry or prose with a stopwatch. There aren’t points for level of difficulty as in gymnastics or diving, no one would say that a sonnet attempted quite well beats a free verse poem that is merely very good. There may be marks for technical merit but artistic interpretation and creativity gets a huge percentage of the marks. Having come across the marking system for synchronised swimming I think it may be a system that could be used for poetry and book awards but just invert the percentage of the marks allowed for technical prowess and artistry. Take a look, I think a team of synchronised swimmers could be roughly akin to a batch of poetry books or novels and for some books you don’t need waterproof makeup, neon swimming caps and nose clips to get you through.

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