Friday, 5 July 2013

Is Winning all that matters?

In sport, is winning all that matters? Two stories this week have raised this intriguing question. The first was the 10 year anniversary of Roman Abramovitch’s reign at Chelsea. His millions turned a fairly good to average Premiership side into one that won all the major trophies at some point over the past 10 years, even the Champions League through their perhaps lucky but certainly plucky displays in 2012. In a recent interview on Sky TV, Matthew Syed pointed out however that this success has been built on dirty money. Abramovitch’s fortune was made when he and a group of other oligarchs made a deal to support Boris Yeltsin in return for the cut-price acquisition of much of Russia’s mineral wealth. Resources that should have gone to support the people of Russia ended up in the hands of a few wealthy moguls. The discussion on Sky was intensely revealing. Syed raised significant moral questions, which seemed to baffle Sky’s usual pundits, who could only see the football success Abramovitch had brought. So what if he’s a crook – he wins trophies, and that is all that matters.
The other incident is Warren Gatland’s decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll. The argument used by Gatland is a) that BOD has not been at his best in this series and that other centres fit into his game plan better, and b) that there is no room for sentiment in sport – decisions have to be made with the head rather than the heart, there is no room for sentiment in sport, because after all, winning is all that matters.
On the first argument, the call must be marginal at best. True BOD made a bad pass at one stage in the last game, and fell foul of the officials’ interpretation of the breakdown in the first test, but other than that, he has more tackles than anyone else in the last game, has not missed a tackle in the series so far. There is far from a cast iron case that he needed to be dropped on rugby issues alone.
It is the second argument is the one that interests me though. Is there really no room for sentiment in sport? Is winning all that matters? If so, is it worth playing if you lose? Who wins if one side win with dishonour and the other loses with honour?  Do values such as teamwork, history, respect, camaraderie, sportsmanship really not matter one jot compared to winning? It was this attitude that led to Neil Back’s infamous cheat on Peter Stringer in the 2009 Heineken Cup Final or ‘Bloodgate’ when Dean Richard’s Harlequins tried to win with fake blood.
There surely is a place for sentiment in sport. Not an over-riding one, sure. If BOD had been not up to scratch, than fair enough, drop him, but with such fine margins, surely there is an argument that one of the greatest players in Lions history, one of the best over the past 15 years deserved one more shot at glory. To lead the Lions in what is probably his last international would have been a fitting way to end one of the great rugby careers. To deny him that chance, is surely an act of disrespect and dishonor in the name of the mantra that 'winning is all that matters'.
Sport is so much more than winning. It is worth playing in itself, as a celebration of our physicality, interdependence and joy in life. It is worth doing as well as we are able. Yet winning does not trump goodness, respect and fairness. This week has seen sport loo a bit grubby and less magnificent than it can be. I truly hope that Warren Gatland and Roman Abramovitvh are not the future of sport.  

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