Against Winning


Talk about hierarchies.  The ancient Greeks pretty much invented the idea of agon, a contest in which people (men, really) competed with each other to see who was the best at

Chariot rider from an ancient Greek krater. From the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

a given sport, e.g. discus throwing or chariot racing.  It probably started out as a way to keep in practice for the next war, which was always on the horizon, but soon took on a life of its own.  There was some justification for it when you knew that the guy next to you was going to have to pull his own weight when the going got tough, but the point I wish to make is that there is a difference between doing your best and striving to win for the sake of winning.

It is of course still with us today in the form of any sport, from relatively benign ones like baseball to marginal ones like football to ones that aren’t even legal.  (Or shouldn’t be–extreme boxing comes to mind.)  George Carlin’s take on the difference between baseball and football come to mind: “baseball is played in a park, football on a gridiron,” etc.  From my experience, there is a clear difference in the mindset of the fans.  Baseball fans seem to be a lot more forgiving if their team doesn’t win for…well, decades, really.  But football fans are definitely less patient, and will start to call for the coach’s head after just a couple of losing seasons.

The obsession with winning I think springs from insecurity on the part of the fan.  He (pretty much always a he) wants to be associated with success, with winning, with a public socially sanctioned display of testosterone.  (Ergo, President Trump.)  There is a subtle but profound difference between doing one’s personal best and the need to win at any cost.  The first gives us true gentleman athletes like Michael Jordan, while the latter gives us doping scandals and performance-enhancing drugs.  And of course many sad cases like Tiger Woods.  A real athlete I think knows that his records are just temporary, that they are made to be broken.  The “agonist-athlete” wants them to remain in place forever, like Achilles wanting eternal kleos.

So my point is: don’t get sucked into the winning part.  It makes for a good story, but it’s just temporary–really, no one in the Iliad finds lasting happiness.  Returning to your true self is a better story.  Read the Odyssey with this in mind.

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