Thursday, 23 August 2012


So, did we all enjoy watching the Olympics?  Were we inspired?

Personally, I was cheated. I wanted a Gold Medal, but I didn’t get one. I’d pictured it in my head; the tense moments before the event. The press speculation, the in-depth analysis, the hopes of a nation.  The drama of the event itself, the underdog somehow hanging in there until at the last, through a supreme effort of will, the crowning accomplishment of my glittering career. The crowd go wild, Steve Cram is off his seat in commentary, the Union Flag is thrown to me for the lap of honour...

But sadly it turns out that Pool isn’t an Olympic event and bowls aren’t even in the Commonwealth Games any more....

Still, the unfairness of me not getting a medal got me thinking... what is fairness in sport and what is it that  we are actually celebrating when someone wins? The Olympic motto of ‘higher, faster, further’ is all very well, but excellence surely needs to be underpinned by character rather than mere physical advantage. The increasing efforts to establish a fair competition seem to validate this view:

Drugs and the use of steroids clearly give an unfair advantage and so more and more money and effort is being expended ensuring athletes are ‘clean’.

In weightlifting, the amount you lift is subtracted from your body weight to give a fairer view of the ability of the athlete – and even then there are different categories for additional fairness.

Women are clearly considered disadvantaged when compared to men – they have separate races. We’d probably all agree that it would be unfair to insist that the best women 100m runners had to compete against Bolt et al.

The sad arguments that surrounded Caster Semenya hinged on this. At some point the natural advantage testosterone gives in terms of speed and strength is defined as unfair and you have to race against others with similar levels - men. At some point the credit for running fast moves away from you and onto biology.

The Paralympics confirms this principle, seeking to recognise that some people are disadvantaged over others and tries to create a more level playing field. It seeks to remove the inherent differences so that what you see in the games is the performance of the athlete themselves. Inevitably, you  will always have those at the edges and make a nonsense of it. Should Caster compete against men or women? Should Oscar run in the Paralympics or the Olympics? (I mean, I know he is a double amputee, but the fact that he can and does compete in the Olympics, surely means that in terms of 400m running, he is not disabled - so how come he gets to race in the Paralympics? In fairness, if there was an ‘able bodied’ athlete who trained hard and had enormous upper-body strength, would they be allowed in a Paralympic wheelchair race?) Anyhow,  the principle is clear – you do what you can to ensure that it is the underlying quality of the individuals you are cheering, not just their natural advantage.

No-one gets a gold medal just for being tall.

So, in looking at this issue of a flat, fair playing field, we’ve covered drugs, weight, gender and disability. There’s really only one area of political uncorrectness left to hit now...

Over 200 independent studies show that Black people have a biological advantage in running over non-blacks. Conversely they have a biological disadvantage when it comes to swimming events. In other words a black runner who puts in the same amount of effort and commitment into training as their white counterpart will likely do better because of biology... And vice-versa for swimming... Now, who is going to be the brave (or insane) person who suggests separate races for black and white athletes or swimmers?

So here’s my point. When we cheer the winner, what are we cheering? If a significant part of victory is due to biology, to circumstance, to chance, what are we celebrating? We don’t give a gold medal for the person who had the richest most privileged upbringing. Or just for being male or female, black or white, disabled or not.... Stronger, Higher, Further. But what if strength comes from more testosterone than your opponent? What if higher is because you are taller? What if further is because you happen to be from the Kalenjins tribe (half a million people who have won three times as many distance medals as athletes from any other nation in the world)....

Isn’t the thing we really want to cheer about more to do with character than attributes? The one who overcomes adversity, the one who takes the limits of what they have and through perseverance overcomes the natural barriers to defeat the more naturally talented?

Ultimately, don’t we want to be impressed by faithfulness more than ability? Isn’t Blake a more impressive person – performing at the limits of his natural ability and coming second than Bolt who could break records at will but who chooses not to? Aren’t we more impressed with Pistorius qualifying for the Olympic final than we will be seeing him win the paralympic race by 20m?

But all this is quickly drowned out by the cheer for the winner. The one who came first. We are so easily conned into being impressed with the obvious, the immediate, the outward. Easier to be impressed by the powerful preacher, the man with the Spirit filled ministry. But as Kenny Borthwick says ‘we shouldn’t be impressed when someone exercises their gifts to the best of their ability. That’s just them acting responsibly’.

Ok, if you’re still with me let’s get personal. Truth is, I can’t run as fast as Bolt. Two reasons come to mind, firstly, I’m in my 50’s, secondly I’m not that fit. I mean, I’m still pretty nifty over 60m, but Usain would have finished the 200m by then. Now I can see an obvious solution to the first issue – age is obviously a disability when it comes to sprinting, so we could have the vetlympics for those over 50. But most people would argue that my lack of fitness is really not a disability but more the result of a series of poor choices...  But wait. The choices I make are surely impacted by my upbringing, the character that was developed during childhood and shaped through my formative years. ... maybe my social background contributed.. Not only that, when I was very young I had my legs in plaster for the best part of a year – I didn’t walk till after two... that’s got to have been a disadvantage... And when I got to school we certainly didn’t have any coaches. Barely had a school bus...

So, if we’re looking for fairness and winners and have women’s events separate from men because of their disabling femininity (Bulgarian shot-putters notwithstanding), veterans tennis and golf tournaments, I think it is my human right to have a male, over-50’s, 60m sprint event for those who had early childhood problems, social challenges and poor school facilities. And whose birthday is in late February (well, you never know how that might have impacted me..)

Or maybe I need to give up on those dreams and face a better reality. God knows all the advantages and disadvantages. All the mitigating circumstances. He says there is already a stadium full of those cheering me on to the finishing line. That I get a gold medal, that I win an overwhelming victory. That against all the odds, I win. Not by virtue of being the fastest. But in his strength, taking every bit of what I have and giving everything I’ve got.