Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Olympic Spirit. Eight Badminton Players Disqualified

Eight Badminton players have just been disqualified from the Olympics because they deliberately played badly. Having already secured a place in the knockout stage, they had no real incentive to win. Moreover, a win would mean that they would have to meet two players in the next stage against whom they were likely to lose. So strategically it must have seemed a clever move to do everything in their power to let their opponents win. Yet as we know, the plan didn’t quite work out. They were accused of not using their best efforts to win a match, of conducting themselves in a manner that was detrimental to the sport, and of “seriously violating the Olympic spirit”, and were, for these reasons, thrown out of the competition, and most people seem to find this entirely justified. But what exactly was their mistake?

It is true, they did not use their best efforts to win the match, but arguably they did what they had every reason to believe was the best strategy to win the competition. They were already qualified for the next stage, so it was quite reasonable to save their energy for those future matches that would really count. It was also reasonable to work towards meeting weaker opponents in those coming matches rather than stronger ones. So if the ultimate goal of an athlete’s efforts during the Olympics were winning a medal, they would have done nothing wrong. On the contrary, since they did their best to win the thing without breaking any obvious rules (so it is not really a case of cheating), their actions should have been applauded as a tactical masterstroke. The fact that their actions are nonetheless widely regarded as wrong, despicable even, shows that sport, or at any rate Olympic sport, is not really about winning at all. It is not what is most important about it (even though it may motivate many athletes).

But if it is not that, what is it? ‘Giving one’s best’ certainly has got something to do with it, but in the sense of actually deploying the skills that define that particular sport, of engaging, as best as one can, in the kind of activity that makes a sport what it is. And why is that so important? I think it is because that kind of engagement makes athletic competitions so enjoyable to watch and participate in. It is, perhaps more than anything else, a display of beauty: the beauty of the human body, of human movement, speed, and strength. That is where the joy comes from. And if there is such a thing as the Olympic spirit, then the celebration of that beauty and that joy is certainly an essential part of it.

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