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The Olympics and business world need to grow up


James MagnussenA couple of random news stories struck a chord. 'Coach defends Aussie swimmers' for winning only one gold medal, and 'Business criticises Fair Work Review'. Both stories assumed that sport and business are for winners. Both were out of touch with the Australian community, which puts a higher value on learning to lose graciously.

Of course the Australian community sports many attitudes to the Olympic Games. Some, mainly sports journalists and children, see only gold and Australia's credit rising and falling with each medal won or lost. Some see only a waste of public money spent on promoting chauvinism. A larger number see a gathering of nice young people with large dreams, and wonder which ones they would like to bring home to meet their nephews and nieces.

When we see the Olympic Games in this last way we begin to understand what they are all about. We notice that there are many thousands of mainly young athletes from all around the world competing for a hundred or so medals. So we realise that the point of the exercise can't be to win. It is to lose. Or rather the Games are a school for learning how to lose, and so for becoming people that any family would like to invite home.

Athletes, children, journalists and nations all ideally learn by failure. Having failed they reflect on their response to failure, ask themselves what really matters, review their response in the light of what they see to be important. Then they come slowly to see themselves wryly as companions and fellow travelers of their fellow athletes and the rest of the human race, notwithstanding the fact that they have momentarily been competitors. They have then grown in humanity.

We journalists do not usually believe in schools, which are all about process. We suffer from attention deficit and so prefer events. But for those who have any eye for education there have been some very good examples of it in the London Games.

James Magnussen (pictured), who was hailed as a winner, had the media puffing him up and hanging off the hot air balloon they had created, became trapped by the inflated expectations put upon him, lost his first race, was devastated by his failure and responded accordingly.But as a second defeat followed the first, he became reflective, learned to lose graciously and accepted the solidarity offered him by Nathan Adrian, his victor.

Ordinary human beings instinctively see this learning to become more deeply human through losing as more important than winning not simply in sport but in all the various activities in which human beings engage. It is certainly so in business and politics.

Business groups and financial journalists are exceptional in believing that the point of work is to win at others' expense and that the nation will gain by arranging the playing field so that the winners can enrich themselves at the expense of losers.

For ordinary people work is about learning from one's failures to be a winner at others' expense, about reflecting on what really matters, and about building solidarity with their companions in the workplace. They would like to work in a place where people cooperate in finding a balance between work and home life, find encouragement in innovating to make their enterprise more productive, and are willing to forego short term profits in the longer term interests of the enterprise, its workers, shareholders and clients.

Like the Games, businesses are schools for learning from failure. All schools are occasionally disruptive because students need to learn to discipline their desires and learn from their mistakes. That is part of growing up. It is certainly a pity that the Olympic Games are built around flags and nations — children's business. Maybe one day they and businesses will grow up and offer medals to the Best Losers. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

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For James Magnussen, and others, these Olympic Games have been a huge learning experience. The weight of expectation was staggering and for that all of Australia must take responsibility - we have a proud history of achievement on the sporting field and this pride can be a heavy beast. I believe the Aussie sense of humour is never far away though - best letter to the editor in Saturday's SMH 'Is silver the new gold?' Short and succinct! From having worked in a primary school for a number of years, I can say that the classroom is not only a place for teaching reading, writing & arithmetic. The church should maybe join the Olympic Games and businesses in growing up as well.

Pam | 06 August 2012  

Australian athletes win a huge number of silver medals and journalists ask them if they have any regrets. There is something seriously the matter here. Some of these journalists would have trouble in a race to the coffee machine. Then this morning we have the ugly competitor, in the form of John Coates, saying the Olympic team needs to have a good hard look at itself, and blames the government for the results. He puts forward the fallacious argument that when the government makes sport compulsory in all schools Australia will somehow win more gold medals. There is something missing here, something missing in a big way. At what point in all of this sporting routine does excelling as a human athlete start becoming inhuman? Andy’s perspective is a dose of reality. Things like the Olympic Games confirm some people’s view that everything is about winning and that it is all about survival of the fittest. Whereas, while winning is sometimes good for the individual involved, experience tends to prove that the fittest are often not the ones who survive, rather those who learn to adapt. Ideas like these are dangerously alive, even if they don’t make it to the podium, or get any air time on Channel Nine.

PHILIP HARVEY | 06 August 2012  

What? Only a loser would have this attitude.

Darren | 06 August 2012  

We once had the 'privilege' of having an elite rider as a weekend guest in our home. I can only say that this person had been trained to be the most obnoxiously self-focussed and arrogant guest we have ever had. Give me a silver-bronze-not at all 'winner' any day.

Pauline | 06 August 2012  

After all the effort, training, self-sacrifice etc that every winner has to undertake, what is wrong with being a winner? I suppose losers don't like them and simply don't get it.

john frawley | 06 August 2012  

This article contends, without the slightest shred of evidence, that by opposing FWA laws, businesses are aiming to win at the expense of others - presumably employees. Fr H, it can equally be contended that FWA is a victory for union members and their ex-union mates in politics at the expense of genuine business and many employees who would prefer to negotiate their own wages and conditions. I would argue, along with Prof Judith Sloan and others, that the FWA is itself a monumental failure, crippling workplace flexibility and productivity at a time our country can least afford it. I hope the Gillard government and the unions learn from their mistake here. Of course, the very notion that businesses only win at the expense of others is just another anti-capitalist myth. In a genuine capitalist economy/free market, a business succeeds by pleasing customers with its product or service: its success and consequent profit is a sign that it has benefited the consumer - hardly a "win at others' expense". Conversely, when a business fails, it's a sign that it's not sufficiently in touch with consumer needs: its failure coincides with a negative impact of its product or service on consumers. In other words, the most competitive business is in fact that which cooperates most with its customers. Fr H has it exactly the wrong way round.

HH | 06 August 2012  

Good try, Andrew! You remind me of that great divine escapologist, Sisyphus, who was famous for escaping the punishment of Zeus by chaining Death up in a dungeon so that mortals would no longer die. Zeus sent his only son Ares to release Death, who pursued Sisyphus, but Sisyphus tricked them all and lived to a ripe old age. Eventually he did die and the gods of the Underworld devised the famous eternal punishment: to roll up to the top of a hill a rock which always rolled down again just as it was about to reach the summit. To my mind the Greeks were the original Jungian psychologists. They recognised the importance of a supreme deity (Zeus); the impulse in all of us to defy death; the cunningness of evil-doers; the belief that eventually they will face appropriate punishment. So it interests me that the original Olympic Games were held in honour of Zeus; they set the norm for all future athletic competition in the ancient world; and they were suppressed by a Christian Emperor in 4th century CE as a pagan cult. Are we pushing rocks uphill, like Sisyphus, in our efforts to chritianise the Olympic Games?

Uncle Pat | 06 August 2012  

Thank you for the perspective on this issue Andy. As a noisy nation, we do have the whole event of medals out of whack. Just a thought, if I am representing my country in the 100 metre sprint, I am in line to be called the fastest human on the surface of the earth at this time. Yet if I come second, some say I lose. How can this be when there are over seven billion humans behind me?

Vic O'Callagahan | 06 August 2012  

JOHN FRAWLEY, the so-called "losers" you refer to are actually still Olympic standard athletes - who have also exercised "effort, training, self-sacrifice etc" and I have never heard any of these so-called losers play down the medal winners.
Folks, let's not confuse sport and politics here. The only instance where we might compare them is when athletes act like politicians by cheating, using banned substances, etc...

AURELIUS | 11 August 2012  

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