Recently, I was lucky enough to go to the Invictus Games in Sydney, Australia. One of the events that I saw was a men’s 1500 metres race, featuring six veterans with a range of disabilities – some had two legs, some had one leg and a blade, and one guy had two blades. Later that day, we saw the TV coverage of the race, and it showed the few seconds when the Australian ran across the finish line to win.
But that wasn’t the real story
On the first lap, the competitors were bunched together, with an American guy at the back. He had lost both legs above the knee, and he had to move his blades with a side-to-side gait that looked like really hard work. But this guy was big and strong, and he never looked like someone struggling to keep up, he looked like someone who was biding his time, waiting to make his move. On the second lap he did so, and on the straight, right in front of the crowd, we went wide and overtook the pack to take the lead.
He didn’t just get in front but got 10 metres clear of the rest of them and stayed there for most of the race. He looked unstoppable and it was thrilling to see him go. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite keep it up. As he tired, the Australian veteran, who had been in second or third place for the whole race, made his move on the final lap. He crossed the line well in front of everyone else, and sadly the brave American guy, who made such a bold, gutsy run, didn’t finish in the medals. I admired the Aussie for running such a clever race, and the American for his strength, guts and big heart.
That wasn’t the end of it. After the guys who won medals crossed the line they went back to encourage and support the others across, including the guy in last place who been lapped by everybody else earlier on. That story, that drama, never made it onto the TV screen.
Missing the Point
The next morning, we watched the news summary on ‘Sunrise’ an Australian TV program, which reported the results from the athletics event of the day before. Some Australian athletes were named, for example, one guy who “won gold in the 100m, gold in the 200m, gold in the 400m, and gold in the 1500 metres”. The only reporting was of those who were winners, who were champions.
This completely missed the point of Invictus.
The joy of the games was watching people compete. Watching the teams go nuts as they cheered on their comrades (I never knew that Danes could get so excited). Watching people come first or in the middle or last and being wildly cheered and celebrated no matter how well they did.
The point of the games was it that it took men and women who were broken, who lacked meaning in their post-military lives and gave them purpose. It turned them into contenders, even though their bodies may never be whole again. Invictus gave them something to focus on and a goal to aim for. It restored a discipline, which had ordered their lives and given them direction in the past. (These are their words, not mine.) Hopefully, these men and women, whether they win a medal or not, will go on to apply this new sense of purpose in other aspects of their lives, after Invictus. Many already have.
The exception to this reporting was the ABC evening coverage of the games, which did a great job of getting the ethos of Invictus across. Thank goodness for public service broadcasting.
There are probably two lessons here. The obvious one is that there is no substitute for being there; watching something vicariously, through a screen, or hearing someone else talk about it just isn’t the same.
The less obvious lesson is about the Australian tendency to celebrate winning and winners to the exclusion of all else. This puts pressure on our sportsmen and women to win at all costs.
I suspect that it was this pressure that caused the Australian cricket team to indulge in ball tampering last season. I can’t help feeling that the huge wave of anger directed at them had more to do with the fact that they were caught, not because they had done something wrong. They had failed at what they were required to do, which was to make us all feel like winners. They were supposed to maintain the illusion that one can win all the time, without cost, without compromising one’s principles.
Winning at All Costs
When the ball tampering scandal hit, Malcolm Turnbull, the then Prime Minister, said he was more concerned about sledging. (For the uninitiated, “sledging” is where players verbally abuse the batsmen, to put them off.) I think Malcolm had it right. If sledging is a legitimate part of the sport, then what age do we teach kids to say “I shagged your wife” to another sportsman?
When we first came to Australia, we were shocked at how the media tore into the cricket team if they didn’t win. The TV news would talk about any old billy-bollocks first, and then mention in passing that Australia was losing, or “looking to come from behind for a win”, as they would say!
It’s not just in cricket. When the Olympic team flew home from London 2012 the medal winners were separated from their teammates. The winners flew home in business class, and the rest in economy. It’s all part of our “winning at all costs” mentality.
Invictus – a Better Way
Well, I can say with confidence that, in Invictus, I saw a better way – a better definition of winning, and of what it means to be a winner. I shall look forward to seeing the next Invictus games, which will be held in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2020. I might have to watch it on the TV in the middle of an Australian night, but it will be worth the wait.