You loser. You: loser.
Last summer, the English football team did well in the World Cup in Russia and a lot of people in this country were elated and surprised in equal parts. It was a lot of fun, even as someone who was raised on a steady diet of All Blacks rugby: the weather was hot, the theme song was catchy and England was winning. And then this advertisement surfaced, shared repeatedly on social media
I already knew about the documented rise in domestic violence incidents on days England played football; the research from Lancaster University was widely-reported in 2013. Even a win resulted in increased violence: a 26% rise was found after a win or a draw, and a 38% increase after a loss. The photo above, however, probably did more to drive home the severity of the situation: a St. George’s Cross scrawled on a woman’s face from her own bloody nose was a sobering antidote to the 32C afternoons and gleeful hollering at a laptop showing the games from the cool of a paddling pool. Not all of us are having a good time.
I had been interested in the topics of winning, losing and sportsmanship as a concept for a while before this. In 2017, I took a course through the University of Oxford about ethics, and I wrote my final paper on cheating in amateur athletics and which ethical theories are best suited to countering the phenomenon. Covering both drug abuse and physical cheating (i.e. cutting the course of a race or having a faster athlete compete in your place), the project took me to sad places. Some of the saddest involved people who had been caught cheating on a rather grand scale, only to discover how far they’d strayed not only from honest participation, but from happiness and true self-satisfaction altogether.
The initial motivations people have for cheating differ but those who come clean often display bafflement that they allowed themselves to descend into outright deceit. Analysing and documenting distance running cheats since May 2015, Derek Murphy of marathoninvestigation.com (a venture that has raised ethical questions of its own) published an anonymised interview with a woman he discovered to have cheated in multiple marathons by having her faster husband run with her bib and timing chip. Her reasons for cheating were characterised by a search for external validation: according to the interviewee, she stopped competing under her own name because of a negative comment from a contact on social media regarding a slow race result.
Other people double down. A lot of people. Murphy’s site alone is rife with stories of people who’ve become obsessive and threatening upon being exposed. Some of them seem to have cheated for roughly the same reason as the anonymous interviewee (social media recognition; impressing friends and family; Instagram likes) but others cheat in attempts to qualify for future events, often the Boston Marathon and other prestigious races like Ironman competitions.
Not to mention the growing problem of drug cheating in amateur sport, which was heavily covered in recent years both by the BBC and the documentary Icarus, which started as the story of an amateur cyclist doping himself and morphed into something completely different.
Between the fans who can’t deal with losing such that they beat their family members and the competitors who can’t stand a bad race result and resort to cheating, we have a fundamental problem with how people view winning and losing in sport. The violent eruptions and cheating is on one side. On the other–possibly a misguided effort to control this as well as to protect people’s feelings–we have the desire to eliminate winning and losing as concepts altogether.
It’s pretty well documented that the “everyone gets to win; there are no winners and losers” model is extremely unhelpful, but it exists in sharp contrast to the even more toxic mindset a lot of people bring to sport, sometimes as competitors, often as parents and most commonly as fans, that “losing” is reason for violence, bitterness and terrible behaviour. Both of these constitute bad sportsmanship and in the context of why sport “matters”, learning and applying good sportsmanship is surely one of the only important reasons.
Good sportsmanship is sometimes really difficult. It hurts to lose, or to feel that you have performed badly. It’s frustrating as a fan with no control to watch something you cared about go wrong. But being a good sportsperson shouldn’t necessarily be easy, and we’re failing at it both when we declare that everyone gets a trophy regardless, and when we are so dissatisfied with a loss that we act out in the worst ways. The toxic attitude to competitiveness is uniform when it pops up. It doesn’t differ in its basal nature to hitting your girlfriend because England lost or trashing IKEA because they won.
Put losing into perspective: I’m a fairly decent amateur runner for a 35 year old woman. I have a 19 minute 5k, a 40 minute 10k and an unofficial 1:38 half marathon. I have only won one running race in my life, ever, and I’m unlikely to win many more unless I deliberately avoid events where women much faster than me are likely to enter.
As a child and into my early twenties, I was a swimmer and after a decade of 30 hour training weeks, I was good enough to win some decent races, once or twice. I won three national titles before I left New Zealand for an NCAA scholarship (200 breaststroke in September 2001 and April 2002, 100 breaststroke in April 2002). In contrast, the races I’ve swum where I didn’t touch first are countless, dating from my first Auckland Champs aged 10, where I came last. This record of not winning is to be expected in sport. Anyone who consistently wins at every level is a household name (Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky… and even they have been and will be beaten, albeit irregularly). Team sports differ from individual ones in that there are often only two “competitors” in a match, and it could be argued that your chances of winning are higher than in a running race with hundreds or thousands of other athletes. All the same, endless winning streaks simply don’t exist. Ask any All Blacks fan.
When it comes to attitudes towards participating in sport, your choices are not between “win at all costs and trash everything in the process” and “everyone gets a trophy”. There is a world of difference between being disappointed because you didn’t win, and believing that “it’s only the taking part that counts”. Being able to maturely cope both disappointment and success, either from the field of play or the sideline, intrinsically acknowledges that results matter. That concept alone underpins one of the primary reasons why sport matters at all, and the domestic violence stats cast a bright light on how badly we fail at it. So does the cheating. We seem to be caught in a binary trap between pretending none of this matters to us at all, and melting down the moment we suffer even the more minor defeat.
It’s a concept I want to look into further, but last summer was also a positive time. English football showed all of us, including its regular supporters and once-every-four-years opportunists like me, what being good winners and good losers looks like. The thing I liked the most about watching the 2018 football World Cup was Gareth Southgate’s reaction to both beating Colombia and losing to Croatia: he hugged the player who missed the Colombian penalty, and he and his team applauded and Croatians and the crowd after their loss. I want to be more like that as a runner, I can think of times I wish I had been more like that as a swimmer and I hope to be like that as a spectator.
Losing is necessary. In sport, everyone does far more of it than winning. This doesn’t mean that losing should be erased as a concept and that you should only expect mediocrity from yourself or your favourite teams, but we need to be much better at handling it when things don’t go our way.