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by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Winning. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, January:22–24.

Our society has an interesting if somewhat unpleasant attitude towards competition. Although we are told that "winning isn't everything" and that "it's a virtue to be able to lose graciously", there doesn't seem to be much indication that most people really believe these sayings. The more I consider the forms that competition takes in modern society, the less I believe that society as a whole truly cares about anyone other than the winner. And in that statement lies a very interesting observation on the way our upbringing has taught us to think.

As an illustration of this point, consider how you feel about three terms, "loser", "also-ran", and "has-been". What do these mean to you—your first reaction, not what you'd say if you took some time to think about it? A loser is simply someone who didn't win, which should carry no inherent sense of shame. But when you describe someone as "a loser", aren't you really calling them a failure? An also-ran is someone who "also ran" in the race. But when you call someone an also-ran, the most charitable thing that you are saying about them is that they were present for the race. In a modern competition, they may have missed out on winning by a hundredth of a second, an almost imperceptible margin, but because they didn't win, their participation is discounted. Finally, what about the has-been? At one point, the person "has been" (was) good or even great at their task, but is great no longer because of age or disability. Someone is a has-been because they are no longer good enough to win, with the implication that this somehow reflects badly on the worth of the person. Not very pleasant terms, are they?

The frequent use of these terms makes little sense when one considers the amount of skill that a competitor may possess in absolute terms (i.e., their ranking relative to you and me, not just to the winners in the competition), and the immense amount of time and effort that may have gone into training to reach that level of skill. Take, for example, the recent Olympics. There were some competitors in one or two running events who were actually "lapped" by the star competitors; there were others, such as Eddy the Eagle (in the ski jump), who fared so poorly in comparison with the winners that they might just as well not have competed. In the case of the runners, most were ignored while the world focused on the winners—assuming these unfortunates were fortunate enough not to be mocked outright as "losers" and "also-rans" for their "poor" performance. Although it is indisputable that these athletes were far from the level of skill of the winners, it seems to have been forgotten that each is still a world-class athlete, capable of performing feats that most of us would never even attempt. So where do we get off calling such people losers?

Perhaps these attitudes are a manifestation of some deep-rooted capitalist "need to triumph through competition" or an obscure devotion to the Darwinist "survival of the fittest" ideal, which carries with it the implication that only winners get to be seen with the good-looking girls or guys, as the case may be. I've always thought that society should include within its scope those rules that are intended to help us live together peacefully and in a reasonably friendly fashion. But one has to wonder how members of a society where "winning isn't everything... it's the only thing" can coexist peacefully. After all, someone has to lose in every competitive encounter, so it's inevitable that we sometimes try too hard and feel bad when we fail. Is it any wonder that our society has become so fragmented, that there is so little sense of community outside of the Christmas season?

And what about the fate of brotherly love in a world where the object of games is to defeat one's opponent, preferably by the largest and most embarrassing margin that can be attained? If you find this a difficult concept to accept, try this simple test: name five games or sports where the object is to help a fellow competitor (not a team-mate) or to build up their sense of self worth rather than defeating them (i.e., five games where the object of the game is cooperation with your opponent rather than competition). To make this challenge a little easier, give yourself about one minute to do this.

If I had simply asked you to name any five games, you could answer me in about five seconds. Just for interest's sake, try an easier version of the same test: see if you can come up with ten games (before the next newsletter) where cooperation is the object of the game. As a reward, I'll publish the names of the first ten people who can do this in my next essay. (No cheating allowed—there's a book whose name I won't mention that lists many more than ten such games. You also can't use any of the examples mentioned below.) The object of this exercise is not to test your skills at coming up with the names of games, but rather, to help you realize an interesting point about the way we all think. For the record, I didn't come up with the five within the one-minute deadline, and I'm still working on the ten. Let's see how many of you can do better—I'll gladly name those of you who beat me at my own game!

Because of the dominance of the "winning is most important" attitude, I suspect that I'm unusual in my approach towards most sports. Although I would rather win than lose, I participate mostly for the kinesthetics of the activity—that is, the sense of pleasure or enjoyment ("-esthetic") that comes from the feeling of my body performing a skilled movement ("kine-") well. In a similar manner, my preference for games runs towards the sort where the players cooperate to "outsmart" one person who has been appointed to pose a problem to be solved by the rest of the players. Two good examples: "role-playing games", in which the players take on the roles of actors in a story, each with specific abilities and limits, to solve problems posed for them by the director of the "play"; and "Botticelli", in which the players ask a series of yes/no questions so they can gain enough clues to guess the identity of a historical figure (such as Botticelli) selected by one player, who answers the questions as if they were the historical figure.

Nonetheless, I must admit that there is a certain fascination in competition. For me, this is because only through tough competiton do I ever truly strive to excel, to surpass the limits imposed by my own current levels of skill and laziness. Perhaps that's the merit of the competition after all, for when I lose (as I often do), I can still say honestly that I enjoyed the competition for its own sake and that I profited from it by learning a little more about my own limits, and just maybe that I pushed back those limits a few more notches. (This is not to say I'm necessarily a good loser—when you all demonstrate that you did better on the "name ten games" test, I'll do my best not to throw a tantrum, but no promises.)

Lest I sound too critical of the human race (in which I, albeit reluctantly at times, include myself), I do see a few signs that indicate that we're not so win-crazed after all. Again, an Olympic example comes to mind. In the ski jump, "Eddy the Eagle" did his best yet failed to match even the worst jumps of the other competitors. But Eddy was a newcomer to ski jumping, had no reasonable expectation of winning, and was quite open about this. Thus, when he lost in all the competitions he entered, when he failed before a TV audience that numbered in the tens of millions, a cynic might have expected him to be laughed all the way back to England. As it turned out, his sense of humor and his obvious enjoyment of just being there to participate in an Olympic event made Eddy a national hero in England, and earned him the admiration of people around the world. To me, that's every bit as good as winning.

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