Friday, August 10, 2012

Kevin Donnelly: Level the playing field and you'll lose the competitive Olympic edge

GIVEN events over the first week of the Olympics, it's clear that many are unhappy with how winners and losers are chosen and the system of awarding medals. In some cases, such as that of Australia's James Magnussen, who failed to win gold by 0.01 of a second, the argument is that if the results are so close then both first and second deserve gold.

And one only needs to see the emotional distress suffered by those who fail to win gold, such as Stephanie Rice, to realise the irreparable emotional and psychological damage caused by an unhealthy focus on coming first. Add the suspicion that some contestants are taking performance-enhancing drugs and there's no doubt the modern Olympics no longer embodies the ancient ideals on which the Games were based.

There are 204 countries involved in the London Olympics and the reality is that only relatively few will win medals, with some having no chance of ever winning gold. Imposing an elitist and hierarchical system of defining success relegates most countries to the dustbin of Olympic Games history.

The Olympic Games also reinforce social inequalities associated with Western-style capitalism. Illustrated by debates about the social composition of Team Great Britain, where 50 per cent of medals in Beijing 2008 were won by athletes educated in private schools (even though they represent only 7 per cent of the population), it's clear that the way athletes are chosen reflects Britain's class-based system.

What's to be done? Sociology academic at the University of All Shall Be Winners, Professor Ima Leveller, argues: "Not all sportspeople have the same level of ability, motivation or genetic make-up. So it is wrong to have winners and losers as not everyone has the same chance of success.

"Sporting authorities should take the lead from educational reforms in the English-speaking world that have radically redefined the work of schools.''

By this he means success in schools is no longer measured solely by competitive, high-risk examinations. In Australia, for example, teachers no longer rank students A to E, where E means fail, or from 1 to 10, as failing students is bad for their self-esteem.

Marking with red pens is forbidden and "failure'' is replaced by descriptions such as "deferred success'', "consolidating'' and "not yet achieved''.

In a draft briefing paper commissioned by those countries that have never won a gold medal, and undertaken by the No Winners in Sport Foundation, details are provided explaining what future Olympics might look like. 

Gold, silver and bronze medals will no longer be available on the basis that all involved deserve to be valued. Instead, a certificate of participation printed on recyclable, eco-friendly paper will be awarded to all participants.

Quotas will be implemented to ensure that merit and ability are no longer considered. Instead, victim-groups will be given priority to ensure a correct balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality.

The rules determining how games are played will also be radically redefined to ensure a less stressful and more celebratory ethos. In the long jump, for example, a line will be set in the pit impossible for any jumper to reach. Gradually the line will be moved closer to the jump point to ensure, eventually, that all contestants can experience success and a sense of mutual friendship.

Similar to what currently happens in horse racing, those contestants who outperform others in sporting trials will be handicapped to ensure they no longer have an advantage.

Initial responses to the No Winners in Sport draft paper are mixed. Representatives from Australia's elite sporting organisations argue that competition forces contestants to strive to do their best and teaches valuable traits like endurance, concentration and the need for disciplined training.

Those committed to a more new-age, holistic and socially just view of sport, on the other hand, drawing on the Gonski review of school funding, argue that, like in education, all must be winners; social background should not determine success and there must be equity in sport.

Don't laugh. It's coming to a school and sports field near you.

Dr Kevin Donnelly played hockey at La Trobe university, not very well, and is the author of Educating Your Child: It's Not Rocket Science. Article first published in the Courier Mail.

1 comment:

Allen said...

I sincerely hope that this person is speaking tongue in cheek.

One of the greatest disasters in our present society is the dumbing down of aspiration.

Hijacked by the all must succeed brigade in our schools promulgating the mythe that out there in the real world all are equal and you don't have to strive and all will be well.