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Why winning is all that really matters in Rio

Forget about the Corinthian spirit; the Olympic Games, like all contests, are first and last about results, says Paul Hopkins

Published 05/08/2016

USSR golden girl Olga Korbut in the Munich Olympics
USSR golden girl Olga Korbut in the Munich Olympics
Our own golden girl Mary Peters is congratulated on her Olympic gold medal by West Germany’s Heide Rosendahl in 1972

One of the great war-cries among boys of a certain age, when they have fallen foul of yesterday's best friend from up the road, is to mutter with clenched jaw and fists, "Loser!"

"He's a loser," my boys would say to me, when they had determined for the umpteenth time that they were never going to play with "that loser" again.

How often have you said to your children at some school sporting event or other, "Go out there and do your best", when you, in fact, really mean, "Go out there and knock the socks off the competition and bring home that trophy - and then we'll see about that treat at McDonald's"?

Thought so ...

As Public Enemy noted in their song Rumbo N Da Jungo, in the jungle "nobody loves a loser 'cos a loser lives alone ..."

Those of us with memories old enough still recall 1966 and all that, when Bobby Charlton and the England team brought untold glory by beating Germany 4-2 to win the World Cup.

Ditto the Republic of Ireland's Italia '90 almost-win and the two Irelands' glory in this year's Euros.

We all love a Bradley Wiggins or Chris Hoy, and it may well be 44 years since Mary Peters' Olympic glory, but she is still revered as Northern Ireland's finest.

Despite all the rousing rhetoric about representing one's country and it not being about winning or losing, but how you play the game, when it boils down to it, the Olympics, as with any other great event or competition, are all about winning.

Gold is alluring while Silver, well, let's face it, is a little cheap and Bronze is just downright tacky. And cheaters, like the Russians, we will not give the time of day to.

God may love a trier, but we mere mortals want a winner; indeed, demand one, or else, like in those arenas of ancient Rome, it's a big thumbs down and off with their heads and we swiftly switch our allegiance to the next promising gladiator.

Winners show us the kind of stuff we are all potentially made of, the kind of stuff we can at least aspire to. Winners bring out the heroes in us.

In the two millennia since the first Olympic Games, one principle has withstood the test of time: we are obsessed with winning and, in our endeavours, pushing the human body to the limit.

What does it take to swim the fastest, throw a discus the furthest, or jump the highest? In some sports, it would seem, athletes claim such honours by birthright. Men and women from Kenya's Great Rift Valley - where I spent some time in 2008 - dominate endurance running, for example, and sprinting of late sees the Jamaicans taking the honours.

When it comes to the sexes, the presence or absence of the Y chromosome creates a different kind of uneven playing field.

A decade ago, the best female runners were closing in on the times of their male counterparts.

But that gender gap has plateaued in the interim in all running events, apart perhaps from the marathon.

Tending not to discriminate by gender, are injuries sustained from pushing ourselves to the limit but, according to a report in Science Magazine, young gymnasts may be risking osteoarthritis and other health problems later in life from injuries they get pushing themselves to the ultimate.

On a more positive note, the report says information gained from studying how athletes' muscles respond to training is providing new insights on muscle growth and atrophy.

In the end, the kind of performance we lesser mortals can merely be in awe of these days very often comes down to mechanics.

New materials, spin-offs from the space programmes, can reduce physical constraints to performance.

At the Olympics, the world's best swimmers will be wearing suits with tiny ridges modelled on sharkskin, that are claimed to reduce friction and drag.

And so it goes, all in the name of winning.

Who wants a guy who plays just a "respectable" game?

I watched recently, via YouTube, a much older Olga Korbut take part in TV's Dancing On Ice - four years ago, in fact. Her grace and elegance and dexterity, at 56, were still very evident after all those years since 1972 and 1976 when, as a young gymnast, she captured our hearts and imagination by winning four Gold and two silver at the Olympics.

The '72 Games may well have been overshadowed by the Munich disaster, when Black September Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and subsequently killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, but, for my money, the abiding memory is of a 16- year-old girl from a then-dark place called the USSR wowing us with her amazing contortions. There has been no one like her since.

On that Dancing On Ice, the much-older Olga Korbut was clearly a winner and got a standing ovation from the judges and audience alike, but I suspect the ovation was very much for what she gave the world all those years ago: a winner we all fell in love with.

Desire to succeed lies deep in culture

Competition has long been a part of our culture. From a simple game of bullets, or long bullets as they say in Armagh, to the FA Cup Final and everywhere in between, there is competition. It's part of what we are, the need to be top dog.

To be the winner has become such a priority that some, like the Russians, will do anything to get it, whether playing by the rules or not.

A week into London 2012 there were cheats caught red-handed - whether using performance-enhancing drugs, betting, or pulling back to be the losers, as with China's badminton bunch.

We humans may well be invested in seeing ourselves as ethical creatures. To believe in the rightness of our own conduct, to see our lives as a series of mostly well-intentioned decisions.

But it seems some of us will go to any lengths to feel that way, even if it means side-stepping our sense of morality to suit the end.

Canadian Albert Bandura, considered the greatest living psychologist and the originator of social learning theory, coined the term "moral disengagement" to describe the process by which we pervert our sense of right and wrong in order to give in to a questionable temptation.

Some of us remember the 1980s and Ben Johnson being stripped of the Gold he won in the 100m sprint, when it was revealed that Johnson had been using steroids.

Among the funnier - if cheating can be considered such - Olympic fraudsters was Fred Lorz, who in the 1904 Marathon, was the first to cross the line. It was then discovered he had stopped running after nine miles and then taken a car ride for 11 miles before resuming running the remaining distance.

Then there was Dora Ratjen, a German athlete who competed in the 1936 Olympics in the high jump. Not much of a story, really - except for one thing: Dora was actually Hermann, a man who was coerced by the Hitler Youth into tightly binding his genitals and competing against women.

And poor Stella Walsh: she was an Olympic competitor for Poland, winning the Gold in the 100m sprint in 1932, and the Silver in 1936.

Walsh set 18 world records in her life, but accusations that she was male dogged her for years, and she was forced to undergo a gender check at the 1936 Olympics.

Which she apparently passed, despite the fact that, when she was autopsied following her death, it was found that she had male genitalia, along with female characteristics.

Further investigation revealed that she had both an XX and an XY pair of chromosomes.

You couldn't make it up...

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