Meeting point between two theories

Even the fiercely competitive players turn to non-competitive sport as they grow older and understand the true meaning of winning and losing.

A file picture of British author Agatha Christie. While living in South Africa, the world’s best-selling author of all time was introduced to surfing. “It was occasionally painful but on the whole it was great fun,” she said.   -  AFP

When I was in school, sports were competitive, the annual sports day was about winning medals and points, and the inter-school competitions in team sports were played before noisy supporters. It was, according to a theory I read many years later, the proper preparation for life which is a competition where points-scoring is the aim of most activities.

Years later I was introduced to the non-competitive sports day in schools where children ran and jumped and screamed for fun and there were no victory podiums or angry parents who complained their child had been robbed of a prize. Children should not have a fear of losing went the theory this time, because that attitude inhibits creativity and original thought.

It didn’t take much to find the meeting point between the two theories. Non-competitive sport is ideal for lower ages, but as one grows older, it is best to introduce competition and the concept of winning, losing and composing nasty ditties about rival teams.

Still, not even the weekend amateur sportsman who plays a set of tennis when he can get all his joints working together, believes that he is playing for fun alone. Or exercise. The element of competition is ever present, sometimes subtly, at other times brazenly. As Tiger Woods said, “Winning solves everything.” Many amateurs truly believe that, even if not in the sense Woods meant. Recreational sports can be intensely competitive too.

There is a way out of the conundrum: individual sport engaged in for reasons apart from winning, showing up the competitor, ego or feeling good about oneself. Sports where the individual is up against time, if anything (running, swimming) or against nature (golf, cycling), and does not involve another person.

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami once wrote that “real existence as a serious writer began on the day that I first went jogging.” It gave him hope that he could “make it to the finishing line.” Louisa May Alcott loved running too: “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.” Joyce Caroil Oates, Don DeLillo and other creative people took short runs to clear their heads in the midst of work.

Edward Said played tennis, John Updike golf with more enthusiasm than skill (“Basically, I want to be left alone with my golf,” he said), David Hockney swam, Samuel Beckett played cricket, David Foster Wallace tennis — only some of them competitively. While living in South Africa, Agatha Christie was introduced to surfing. “It was occasionally painful but on the whole it was great fun,” she said.

But even the fiercely competitive players turn to non-competitive sport as they grow older and understand the true meaning of winning and losing. Then they return to their primary school days, running, swinging racquets, jumping and generally exhibiting all-round enjoyment. It is a way of reconnecting. Both to their younger selves and to a time when sport was fun and not yet the serious business it later became.

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