Please Olympians – have fun, for our sake
I was interested to read an article by Shaun Carney in The Age today, on the Australian Olympic team’s “failure” at the London games. Most particularly, with this line, which summed up the thrust of his argument:
The point is, Australians pay for these athletes to compete, not to ”have fun”.
Well Shaun, as fellow Australian taxpayer, allow me to disagree.
And to Leisel Jones, and James Magnussen, and Emily Seebohm, and the rowers and the runners and the jumpers and the basketballers and the shooters and the sailors and so on ad infinitum, allow me to say, I am absolutely paying for you to have fun.
How can we say we are a sport-loving nation, and then say that we don’t want sport to be about having fun? What sort of grotesque parody of sports-lovers are we?
Michael Parkinson once said, “sport only matters if it doesn’t matter”. And he was right. Sport is an absurd pursuit – look at those people running and jumping, throwing and swimming, kicking balls and shooting hoops and playing forward defensives.
It’s all ridiculous – weird rituals played out to arbitrary rules for no real material purpose. The only way it can have any actual significance is if we enjoy it. The only way it can matter is it’s fun. And the only way professional sport can have any meaning beyond simple entertainment is if it brings joy to us.
The minute sport becomes about investment and return, profit and loss, KPIs and serious reviews into coaching and demands for more and more funding and a requirement for athletes to be devastated every time they lose…the minute sport becomes “important”, it just doesn’t matter anymore.
Bear in mind, medals, in themselves, don’t actually provide anything of value to us. Medals aren’t a “return on investment” – they don’t deliver anything beyond fleeting tribal euphoria.
Can a fleeting gold medal be an inspiration? Sure – but what should that medal be inspiring?
A desire to joylessly pursue a payback for taxpayer support? Or a desire to feel the spontaneous happiness that Sally Pearson felt when she won gold? Or, more significantly, the delight she showed us all in Beijing, when she didn’t win gold?
Frankly, if our athletes aren’t going over there to have fun, I’m happy to dismantle the Olympic program altogether, because it’s clearly not fulfilling its purpose.
I don’t want to see devastated silver medallists – I accept that I will, because when you work hard for something and fall short, it’s going to hurt, and some people will be devastated.
But I never want to be complicit in making anyone feel that they have to be devastated, on my account. That if they fail to win, their failure will be compounded if they don’t let it crush them. I want joy in victory, not depression in defeat.
Because I’d like to think the most important thing professional athletes do is convince kids that sport is a fine thing to engage in, that being a sportsperson is an excellent way to spend your time, and that sporting endeavour will enrich their lives.
“Work hard and do your best and maybe one day you’ll be an Olympian”. A great message to send our kids. I don’t want to tell our kids that if they work hard and do their best, one day they can sit, inconsolable, on a racetrack, feeling their life drained of any point because they ran slower than someone else.
I don’t want to tell our kids that if they work hard and do their best, one day they can break down and cry in front of the world, sobbing and gasping in front of a camera that they’ve let their parents down by being the second best in the entire world at what they do.
I don’t want to tell our kids that the reward for the hard work and sacrifice they put in for their chosen sport will be an entire country’s scorn and derision for the crime of ending up one hundredth of a second away from a gold medal.
I don’t want our kids to feel that if they let someone else finish in front of them by the width of a fingernail, they’ll be a disappointment not only to themselves, but to millions of people they’ve never even met.
I want our kids to enjoy sport. I want them to know that as long as they do their best, they’ll never have anything to be ashamed of, and no matter what happens, sport is never a matter of life and death.
I want them to rejoice in silver, in bronze, in making a final, a semi-final, in making it to the Olympics at all, or the national championship, the state championship, the local Little Athletics meet.
I want our kids to be able to shake hands with their opponents and share a joke at the end of the game, because they know it’s just a game and it’s a blessing to be able to spend your time playing games.
And I don’t ever want our kids to think that if they act friendly towards the opposition, if they smile after a loss, or shrug off disappointment and declare it’s not the end of the world, they’re committing a sin.
If that’s the way sport is going to be, we don’t need it, and I don’t want it. Scrap the whole damn thing.
All you Olympians, go out there and have fun. Because if you’re not having fun, there was no point sending you in the first place.
Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian writing weekly on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys the frolics of Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms. Ben is also the author of the books Surveying the Wreckage, Superchef, and his latest, The Book of Bloke, available from Momentum Books.
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