I’m sure you know this verse (by American sportswriter Grantland Rice):
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks – not that you won or lost –
But how you played the Game.
It came to mind this weekend as I watched the Wimbledon finals and the closing rounds of the World Cup. There’s a message in that poem that I fear is fading.
Today, it seems, it doesn’t matter how you play the game; what matters is winning.
In sports, as in politics and business and academics and just about every facet of life, another quote seems more apropriate. Attributed to legendary coach Vince Lombardi but actually originating with coach Red Saunders it’s
Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
It’s puzzling that so-called spectator sports have become so obsessed with the final score. Where’s the spectacle in the kind of soccer they’re playing in Brazil? Surely, what fans want to see is incredible mastery of a skill, superhuman physical ability, once-in-a-lifetime dramatic moments?
Does it matter so much who wins or loses if the spectacle is unforgettable?
Apparently it does.
So fans probably won’t long remember Costa Rica’s valiant effort. The record books will show only that Holland advanced to the semifinals of the World Cup. Nobody will care that the game was decided by penalty kicks after being deadlocked even after extra time. Penalty kicks! What an anticlimax!
And few fans will be talking in the years to come about Roger Federer’s vast repertoire and indomitable spirit; they will remember only that he lost. Novak Djokovic will go down in history as The Winner.
In a way, it’s sad that there had to be a winner and a loser.
Watching that Wimbledon final, I thought both men emerged as winners. They were as athletic as a pair of cats. They were as creative as Van Gogh. They were as inexhaustible as a Kenyan marathon runner. They were delightful to watch. It was tennis for the ages.
I wish I could say the same about the women’s final. But Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard was so obviously outclassed that it was more painful than delightful to watch. I am sure she will learn from this experience though, and will some day – soon I hope – provide us with the kind of spectacle we got from Federer and Djokovich.
And I wish I could say the same about most of the World Cup matches. But it seems far too often the teams are more afraid to lose than eager to win. They pass the ball back and forth in the back field, not daring to do anything spectacular – or even interesting. They seem to be waiting and hoping for a mistake by their opponents, a chance to slip through the defeners and get the ball in the opposing net somehow, anyhow, to “win ugly,” as tennis great Brad Gilbert put it (in his book about tennis).
Where are the spectacular strikers of yesteryear? Where is today’s Pelé ? Is anyone even trying to be like that magical superstar of the 1958 World Cup? Or are they all too afraid of making a mistake that costs their team the game? Are they all interested only in playing it safe?
I suppose that the consequences of losing today are so intimidating – and the rewards for winning are so overwhelming – that the kind of spectator sports I enjoyed as a boy are destined to vanish.
But at least we had that great show by Federer and Djokovic. It made the weekend memorable.