Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Why winning's all that matters at the Olympics

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 Mc Donald'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 to their people by beating Germany 4-2 to win the World Cup. The World Cups since, we dismiss with a dollop of disdain. Ditto the Republic of Ireland's Italia 90 almost-win.

That's why, 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, is all about winning! Gold is alluring while Silver, well let's face it, is a little cheap and Bronze just downright tacky.

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 too. 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 farthest, 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 out or even increased 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 the current edition of 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, spinoffs from the space programme, can reduce physical constraints to performance. At the London Games, many of the world's best swimmers will be wearing suits with tiny ridges modeled on sharkskin that are claimed to reduce friction and drag.

And so it goes, all in the name of winning. We may have had great sympathy for our own G-Mac at last weekend's Open but the day belonged to South Africa's Ernie Els and as for Tiger Woods, well he may have played a respectable game but it's a far cry from the glory days. And, besides, who wants a guy who plays a 'respectable' game? We want winners, Tiger. Winners.

I watched a much older Olga Korbut last Sunday take part in TV's Dancing On Ice. 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 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.

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