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Athletes model anarchic cooperation



In some weeks the most thought-provoking news stories are not those that are a honey pot for reporters and commentators but the tiny ones. At the end of last week I was intrigued by the story of two competitors in the women's triathlon in Japan.

Georgia Taylor-Brown of Great Britain competes in the AJ Bell World Triathlon on 8 June 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)Jessica Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown from Great Britain had been inseparable as they led the first stages of the event, and were still locked together well ahead of the field as they approached the finishing line of the running section. So they decided to join hands and to cross the line together. They were then disqualified and the race awarded to the third runner. The result could cost the two selection in the next Olympic Games.

The International Triathlon Association (ITA) rule under which they were disqualified forbids participating in a contrived tie. It was introduced some years after the leading athlete dragged his collapsed brother to the finishing line. A similar rule against assisting another athlete's progress in the race might have led to the disqualification of John Landy in his famous pausing to help the fallen Ron Clarke when trying to break the four minute barrier.

Although the ITA was strongly criticised for its decision, it had little option. The rule seemed clear, and to allow the tie to stand might well have led to litigation by other athletes in the race.

At first sight the story seems to be worth no more than a short paragraph in the sports pages. No one died. No celebrity was involved. No one much cared. The story, however, illustrates the way in which sport, like so many other areas of life, has allowed itself to be defined as a business whose sole reason for existence is to make people compete against others. To refuse to compete, even if you are so far ahead that no-one else could catch you or if an athlete falls in front of you, is anti-competitive behaviour that must be penalised. Ties in which no single person or team wins must be avoided at all costs. One must win and many lose.

Now it may be argued that the point of sporting competition is that participants should compete and the crown should go to the fastest. That is normally the case, but not automatically so. Sport involves a network of human relationships — those shaped by the rules of the competition, certainly, but also those of friendship and respect with other participants, and those of athletes with their own bodies, with their delight in skill, balance and grace.

Competitiveness is part of sport, but not its whole human reality. That is why moments like that of John Landy stopping to help Ron Clarke to his feet are so precious. They align the grace and fierceness of a game with a generous humanity.


"In the hierarchy of human activities sport has a lowly place. But the same emphasis on competition as the defining quality of human activities has spread to more important things."


As sport has become a business, such moments are rarer and they are discouraged. Sport has come to be defined by competition at all levels. Not to compete is the biggest insult that can be leveled against any player.

In the hierarchy of human activities sport has a lowly place. But the same emphasis on competition as the defining quality of human activities has spread to more important things. Education, for example, is often popularly defined in terms of competition between schools and between students for good examination results. As a result the central place that non-competitive play and experiment have in children's growth are easily lost.

Competitive tendering for working with disadvantaged people, too, can make people in community organisations focus on the criteria rewarded in the tender even if these distract them from the good of the people whom they serve. It can also lead to competition between organisations whose founding spirit was based on cooperation for people who were the victims of unbridled economic competition.

At a time when the destructive effects on society of an ideology that privileges economic competition between individuals over cooperation for the common good are increasingly patent, we should be wary of extending its rule into other areas of life. For that reason such anarchic gestures as equally matched athletes refusing to separate themselves into winner and loser, footballers laughing at being invited to die for the guernsey, and cricketers walking without waiting for the decision of the first, second or even third umpire are a small victory for the human race.

They may not be warlike but they are splendid.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Georgia Taylor-Brown of Great Britain competes in the AJ Bell World Triathlon on 8 June 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

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Existing comments

Splendid article Andy. Sport is a prominent feature of life in a country like Australia where, especially in international competition, we like to prove our worth against other nations. At its best, sport can unify in a unique way. This also applies at the level of 'social' sport where we meet, compete in a spirit of friendship and acknowledgement of each other's skills and retain positive feelings for each other. Sadly, many now regard sport as a vehicle in which to prove one's own superiority over another person/nation. To the two British lasses who linked hands over the finish line I say: jolly good show!

Pam | 20 August 2019  

Virtue-signalling. The purpose of sport is to see what the body can do when pushed. Now, a whole race has been wasted. The third-place getter should insist on third place. Now, that would not be virtue-signalling but affirming the purpose of sport.

roy chen yee | 20 August 2019  

Feedback from many local matches when official score-keeping was abolished in under-age football indicated that when the scoreboards were inoperative the young participants kept the scores for themselves. Competition can be healthy and productive - and a stimulant of resourcefulness!

John RD | 22 August 2019  

thank you Andrew, thank you.

Lorender Freeman | 23 August 2019  

Super article - well written and on the mark. Thank you, Andrew.

Martin Killips | 23 August 2019  

When I hear the phrase "virtue-signalling", I've always wanted to say this, and now I have the chance to say to Roy chen Yee: "I see your point, Roy; there's nothing worse than virtue."

Patrick Mahony | 30 September 2019  

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