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Off Piste: A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise

Off Piste: Life and sport: A world apart

Those who say life is like a game are confusing fantasy with reality, says Robert A. Segal

When I was in high school in the US, I had a gym teacher - pardon me, a sport scientist - who used to offer us avuncular wisdom along with towels. His favourite aphorism was that life is like a game. If we could grasp the real nature of basketball or baseball, we'd be set for life. He was "life- coaching" long before the term had been invented.

What lessons for life did sport - in American usage, sports - hold? In sport, one is always competing against others. Everyone wants to win, but there will always be both winners and losers, and often one winner and many losers. There is no in-between category. There are no sidelines to which one can retreat to escape the competition.

Sport is fair. Determination of the winner is clear-cut. Whoever swims or runs the fastest wins. Whoever compiles the highest (or, in golf, the lowest) score wins. Yes, a few sports involve judging - diving, for example - but the criteria are known to all, even if sometimes judges may disagree.

Sport is egalitarian. It is open to all. Sport does not discriminate by race, religion, class or sexual orientation. Sport operates on a level playing field (pun intended). Indeed, separation by age and gender serves to make things equal. Anyone can learn to swim or to run. Anyone can play basketball, baseball, football or tennis.

Success is based, at least partly, on ability, and we are not all born equal. But success is based no less on practice. Hard work can even overcome a lack of talent. And talent by itself never suffices. Not good at one sport? Find another. Everyone is good at something.

Sport builds not only muscles but also character. Discipline, dedication and endurance are among the qualities instilled. In group sports, teamwork is inculcated; in international sports events, patriotism as well. Sport teaches one to set goals and to work towards them. Sport teaches one that progress comes gradually, not straight away, and that it demands perseverance.

Above all, sport teaches that life belongs to winners, not losers. Losers can bemoan all the disadvantages that they endured. They can recite John Kennedy's line that "life is unfair". No one listens. The appeal to take into account their disadvantages is an excuse. Crying foul may be taken more seriously, but in the end, winners will always find a way to win. In the immortal words of the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

I have lived in the UK for 14 years and still cannot fathom the less competitive attitude to sport, whether or not also to life, among the British. I cannot quite imagine the coach of a British team uttering Lombardi's line. Here, participation seems sufficient. The British Olympians who won medals seemed genuinely surprised at their success. They seemed pleased that they had merely competed.

In the US, even the Ivy League recruits athletes. Like less acclaimed institutions of higher learning, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the other five Ivy League universities loosen academic standards to admit students who on scholastic grounds alone would be spurned.

In the UK, most higher education sporting competition is what Americans call "intra-mural". It takes place within a university, not between universities. How many British universities recruit, to use the conventional oxymoron favoured in the US, "student athletes"?

Still, the US is not alone in its obsession with winning. Well documented are the efforts of Russia, Romania and the former East Germany to select the best kids almost at birth and to train them to win. During the Cold War, athletic success symbolised political success. China, as part of its effort to prove itself equal to the West, is striving to do the same, and with equivalent success.

My wariness of sport is not that sport is diplomacy by other means. My wariness is not that sport at the international level has always been politicised or that it has become corrupted by money and drugs. On the contrary, sport remains remarkably untainted. In the Olympics, athletes may be grouped by nations, but the competition is still individual. There is no bloc vote, as it is alleged there is in the Eurovision Song Contest. Those eligible to compete at the Olympics are the ones who have proved to be the best in their countries. Athletes from smaller or poorer countries compete, often successfully, with those from bigger or richer countries.

Above all, the competition is public. Anyone present or watching on TV can see who has won. There are no behind-the-scenes deals. There is no negotiating, no quid pro quo. There is no miscounting of ballots. True, drug use will never be altogether eradicated. Improved means of detection seem to fail to keep pace with new drugs and new means of hiding their use.

But those who take drugs are still extraordinary athletes who still depend chiefly on ability and training. I think that sport, and most of all sport at the highest level of competition, is as pure an expression of an ideal world as can be.

All that is exactly why, for me, life is not like sport. Life is not like sport precisely because the proverbial real world does not operate at all like sport.

Far from duplicating reality, sport simplifies and distorts reality. Sport is fantasy, not reality. The very objection to the intrusion of the real world into the sacrosanct, pristine world of sport presupposes the opposition of the two realms.

Sport is not supposed to be a matter of money, drugs or politics. Sport is supposed to be clean and honest. Sport is supposed to be sport and not business or politics. Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Olympics to protest against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan seemed to confuse sport with politics. The fact that the Olympics have always been used politically is considered not a justification for this use but a shameful perpetuation of it.

How is life different from sport? In life there is no level playing field. All kinds of advantages and disadvantages exist that talent and willpower cannot overcome. Advantages and disadvantages stemming from discrimination are harder to identify and to correct.

But even more significant are factors that have nothing to do with discrimination. What country one lives in, what kind of schooling exists, what kind of government rules, what kinds of jobs exist, what kind of air one breathes, what one's state of health is, what kinds of parents one has or does not have - what can one do about them? These disparities are matters of luck, good or bad. A few individuals can manage to change their surroundings, but most are stuck. Talent and willpower mean little.

In life, in contrast to sport, competition is often circuitous and criss-crossed. With whom is one in competition, and for what? Is the playing field - level or not - that of looks, that of brains, that of income, that of longevity or that of morality?

In any of these areas, who are one's competitors? Relatives, neighbours, fellow students, co-workers, fellow citizens? Even if the competitors are demarcated, how is the competition waged, and who judges it? Who knows the results? What if some would-be competitors decline to compete? What if competitors disagree over the criteria or over the scoring? Who has access to all the information needed to decide who wins and who loses?

In sport, all those who assemble mean to compete. The specific sport is identified and the nature of the competition is explicit, as is the measure of the results. Competitors know whom they are competing against, and for what. And there is no uncertainty about who has won. Life is not like this. Tests of happiness, like university league tables, founder on the arbitrariness of the criteria.

In life, talent may count, but it may not. Hard work may count, but it may not. Some factors, such as looks and brains, seem easily measured. But views of beauty vary, and intelligence has become divvied up so finely that, like divine gifts according to St Paul, everyone is gifted in some way. Yet even if there were unanimity on the measure of looks or brains, how often does success in any domain depend wholly on just one thing?

Success depends on an array of things, often circumstantial and happenstance. Whom one knows, where one is at a time and place - surely these factors often count as much as one's attributes and one's efforts.

The American ethos is summed up by the "rags to riches" myth - the conviction that in America, sheer determination can overcome all obstacles and yield success. The present-day epitome of this myth is the self-help guru Anthony Robbins, salesman par excellence for success. His myth is his own life story, his rise from loser to winner. What, according to Robbins, keeps others from succeeding? Not trying.

Yes, "Tony" - who makes Candide seem like a pessimist - does well plying his upbeat message in workshops, books and DVDs. But how many Americans, let alone non-Americans, attribute their success or failure to trying or not trying? How many believe that they are in full control of their lives and that grit makes all the difference? Robbins' message does fit one domain: sport. It does not fit life, or life beyond sport.

Sport is not reality. Sport is a simplification of reality. Sport is what is left from life when all vagaries and uncertainties and complications have been removed. Sport is an innocent, prelapsarian view of reality. Sport can be taken as an idealised view of reality. It can be seen as what life should be like. But it cannot be taken as what life is like. To say that life is like a game is to confuse fantasy with reality.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Obviously Robert Segal has not lived in the UK long enough to remember Bill Shankly: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

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