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Win battles or win people


As I write the desperate need of the nation for its sporting teams to win has momentarily been sated. The Sam Kerrless Matildas thrashed Canada. But the Australian cricket and rugby union teams let their nation down by being defeated. Blame was duly and abundantly laid. Winning is the only thing that matters, it seems, and it matters hugely to the whole nation.

As in the ancient Roman games, to lose, to be a loser, is not an acceptable option. In the beginning, the gladiator who lost his fight would be put to death. Later when very wealthy Romans sponsored the Games for political purposes and provided their own splendidly trained and armoured gladiators, the losers were generally spared. Today, however, the ritual punishment of losers continues. Like Madame Lafarge at the foot of the guillotine, reporters lie in wait to distribute blame for losses and to ensure that Coaches and Captains are duly humiliated and sacked. Their mission is to ensure that the playing of sport remains a joyless, combative affair. Not a matter of life and death – as Liverpool Manager Bill Shankly told a reporter – but far, far more serious than that.  

The vision of sport as a war in which winning alone matters extends to other areas of public life. The Referendum on the Voice is enacted as a battle between the Yes and the No side in which the task is not to unite the nation nor to elucidate the issues but to smash the opposition. International relationships, too, are increasingly conceived as adversarial in which Australians and our neighbours must take sides. Reporters conceive of politics in the same way, representing the winning of elections as the only significant test of a party’s and a leader’s worth. A chain of bad poll results will see pressure for a change in leadership or in policy. Every social and political issue is judged by its political effects. The agonistic approach to politics represented in the mainstream media is reflected in the viciousness of social media where vehemence supplies for reason.

The cult of winning is so pervasive that we might wonder how sport, politics and relationships could be seen in any other way than as a zero sum. To see them as play in which we enjoy the contest, give themselves fully to it, and afterwards return happily to our daily lives, win or lose, is seen as frivolous. It marks us out as amateurs in a professional world. 

A more enduring and endearing understanding of winning, however, speaks powerfully to our culture. At its heart lies the desire, not to defeat other people, but to win them.  We desire to make other people better by joining them in play, entertaining them, making them happy, persuading them or attracting them. It is the gift of great athletes so to delight in their gifts that they are applauded by their opponents as well as by their teammates. They win people by offering a new sense of human possibility. Athletes win people even more strongly, however, by risking defeat in order to express higher human values. John Landy, for example, is remembered as a great runner. He is even more affectionately remembered for stopping to pick up an athlete who had fallen at the cost of forfeiting his own chance to set a world record. At a more pedestrian level, the English cricket team has won people to the game (including its own players) by playing the game for enjoyment whether they win or lose. 


'Winning conceived as conquest is heavy. Winning persons is light. That lightness lies at the heart of all the great religions. It supposes that there is a goodness, a truth and a beauty beyond the engagements of our daily lives and preoccupations, and that winning battles is not really significant.' 


To win people as distinct from winning against them supposes that there is a wider horizon to any relationship. It requires sportspersons and their sponsors to recognise that every contest is play not war; that in every debate the truth is larger than anyone can articulate fully; that in every relationship the human beings involved are precious for who they are and not for what badge they bear, what skills they have, or what convictions they have; and that our personal identity is not fully defined or lost by the groups to whom we belong.

Winning conceived as conquest is heavy. Winning persons is light. That lightness lies at the heart of all the great religions. It supposes that there is a goodness, a truth and a beauty beyond the engagements of our daily lives and preoccupations, and that winning battles is not really significant. In the Christian Gospel it is framed in a strong bias against responding to violence with violence. It leans against avarice and ambition and embraces an ideal of serving others as family and not as rivals or enemies.    

The stories of Jesus’ life embody this vision. He sends out disciples to win people with only the message they spoke as a resource. He discouraged rivalry and competition. The central image of God’s engagement in Jesus with human beings is that of a man defeated in every sense of the word in being stripped of credibility, human likeness and life itself. But the love that showed itself in accepting defeat proved in Jesus’ rising to be a victory. St Ignatius, whose feast this year coincided with an Ashes Test and the Women’s Football World Cup, insisted that the closest following of Jesus was found in humiliation, not in achievement.

That takes us beyond sport and politics into paradox. But a story told about St Ignatius was that he once agreed to play an acquaintance at billiards. We do not know who won the game, but the story survives because Ignatius won the person.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Alanna Kennedy of Australia celebrates the team's 1-0 victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group B match between Australia and Ireland at Stadium Australia on July 20, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Winning, Soccer, Connection, Victory



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Existing comments

It can be difficult to define what wins our hearts and minds at a more than superficial level. At the centre of Australia’s quest for sporting glory (i.e. winning) is a need for recognition from other countries and a bolstering of our ever fragile egos. This applies more broadly to political issues as well. I believe St Paul got it right when he wrote in Philippians about the kenosis of Jesus - the self-emptying which is also the mark of a person for others whether it be in sport or politics. Relationships too depend on the giving of oneself to another not because of their achievements or beauty or ability but because we can relate in a way devoid of scrutiny.

Pam | 03 August 2023  


Tyler | 03 August 2023  

If I see another piece about Sam Kerr's calf I will scream. How dull the inveterate readers of these pieces must be! 'Get a life!' There are some Australian sporting heroes, such as Bill Woodfull; John Landy; Ted Whitten and Ron Barassi who are worth taking as role models. So many of our modern sportspeople seem minnows in comparison.

Edward Fido | 04 August 2023  
Show Responses

Oh for the good old days when our heroes were all males, Edward ? The times, they are a'changing, Mate. And thank goodness !

Ginger Meggs | 14 August 2023  

Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday.

Is it possible that a question asked by one of three major disciples during the seminar in the desert before the Ascension was why they were meeting there instead of in the praetorium, having deposed Pilate and Herod and installed a home rule of Jews by Jews under an immortal Jewish Messiah?

Is it possible the answer might have been that if the three were so untransformed by the experience of the Transfiguration that they could have fled the side of the provably glorified prophet at Gethsemane, the Messiah would have found the experience of ruling unreformed subjects much like herding cats, and perhaps feeling like the foreigners Pilate and Herod?

Was the Transfiguration a lesson of pearl cast before swine? Why need tongues of fire if you've seen?
If sight is not faith but, say, "hearing", what is "hearing"?

Does the lesson explain what Abraham said to Dives, why God doesn't appear in person to the living, why Lucifer sees the whole God yet dissents, and why God is Word?

The Church says salvation is a mystery. Is that because winning people (never mind demons) requires more than appearing to them with pearls of grace?

s martin | 07 August 2023  

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