My reference below is to the British cycling scandal, but this is nothing when compared to subsequent events in South Africa involving the Australian cricket team. Such is the personal cost in this affair – the captain, Steve Smith appears a broken man – that this is surely a morality tale for our age. The pursuit of winning for this Australian team was followed so intensely that codes. protocols and ethics went out of the window. It’s not just the ball-tampering incident but a whole range of behaviours which those in the game have reviled at for many months.
The whole sorry episode contributes further to the points I make below.
In a tidy coincidence, no sooner had I posted the update on the travails of Mr O’Keefe that the revelations concerning Team Sky spilled out the following day. The obsession with maximising every possible advantage, and then telling the world about how amazing you are, is, I think, an unhealthy cultural development. This I believe even when done within the rules and the law; I tried to satirise this, however bluntly, through Derek’s observations last week.
It appears to be incontrovertible that many of these ‘1% advantages’ are conducted within a grey area that straddles an ethical line. It was the subject of the brilliant ‘Moral Maze’ on Radio 4 last week. Mirroring the ‘tax evasion vs tax avoidance’ debate, it might be within the law, but may also be unethical and leave society wounded rather than inspired.
More alarmingly, this emphasis on ‘winning at all costs’ is now as prevalent in education as it is in elite sport.
Assessment rules are so labyrinthine and complicated that teachers spend hours working out how loopholes can be exploited to maximise the advantage to their pupils. The surge in applications for remarking test scripts suggests an almost desperate attempt to claw back a few marks here and there. Badges, kitemarks and award logos litter the web pages of many schools, determined as they are to seek out an advantage that puts them a little bit ahead of their neighbouring competitors. And when stuck behind the 342 bus, it’s now normal to see elaborate (and expensive) posters advertising the ‘outstanding centre of excellence’ that every school now claims to be.
Now, I am no saint here. To some extent, I’ve done all of the above. (I do refuse to put banners on the school gates though – that’s just silly and hubristic.)
The key question is this. Does this raging competitive climate benefit us, this apparent rising tide lifting all boats? I’m not so sure.
Human fulfilment depends on self-esteem and peer acceptance. Educators are there to develop the former and encourage a culture where the latter is typical. Of course knowledge and skills are crucial, but they are useless if we ignore what genuine fulfilment consists of.
And what are we winning? The world is full of so-called winners who are desperately unhappy or painfully lonely. I’m sure Steve Smith will recover his reputation given time. But for a remarkably talented batsman to be feeling like he does now is tragic.
Back to sport. I watched the mercurial tennis player Fabio Fognini play this weekend on TV. This guy is one of my heroes, a sportsman more at home in the amateur era. He’s a bit out of shape, has a suspect attitude on court and is rather inconsistent with his tactics. His match yesterday was another example of Fabio clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.
But he’s also seriously talented. I mean, he ended Rafa Nadal’s 52-match winning streak on clay last year. At his best, he is mercurial.
Fabio will never win a major. His idea of a performance-enhancing substance is probably a good penne arrabiata. Fabio couldn’t give a stuff about 1% gains. But I’ll bet you Fabio is happy in himself, true to his character, and has a deep hinterland to return to once the tennis world bids him farewell.
Fabio will probably be a loser in the annals of tennis statistics. People will talk about how his talent failed to translate into trophies and titles.
But he’s a winner for me, and I’d have his talent and character ahead of a thousand ‘1% managerial gains’.