Wrong sport, lads and lasses

The recent Ensidiagate prompted me into posting on a subject that’s been on my mind for a while now: the morality of competitiveness. Maybe I should have used that as the title of the entry, but, honestly, my titles sound preachy enough as it is. So, what is this all about, anyway? Competition.

Competition is an interesting thing. A two-edged blade. Competition means motivation, determination. It is a reason to try to be better. Competition is the antidote to complacency, and thus a catalyst of progress. Us not living in caves is a direct result of competition.

Curiously, having come so far since the time we left the caves means that competition has changed as well. In fact, outright competing with the next person is societally frowned upon, and usually manifests itself in the less productive forms of constant 1-up’ing and raging envy. Also, mobbing and other sorts of ugliness.

The medium through which we experience modern competition in what is considered a “pure” form is almost exclusively sports. It is easy to argue that sports, as such, arose from the demise of competition as it was known in former ages of mankind, as a mimicry of activities that once constituted the competition for survival (and procreation): hunt, war, elopement, gathering, perseverance. Not that war could be attributed solely to “former ages of mankind”, but at least we don’t want it to be an open competition anymore.

So, sports. The pitfall here is what kind of sports we grow up with, what sports get the most spotlight and gain the highest prominence. Football/soccer and basketball matches are frequently decided by coaxing the referee into a wrong decision in your favour. Fall down without having been shoved, talk trash to disturb concentration and hope for a rebuttal that may be punished as an additional bonus. Yell at the referee and argue every decision. No-no, my foot wasn’t behind the line. Inconceivable.

Then there’s athletics, cycling and similar disciplines, which seem to have long evolved into a race of “who can shove more stuff into their body without being caught overstepping an official rule”. The phrase “usage of illegal doping” alone is amusing already, when you think about it – it means there is legal doping, so, the question isn’t really “if”, but only “by how much”. The answer may arrive in the form of a life-ending heart attack at age 40.

Speaking of racing – Formula 1, anyone? Turned into a competition for finding the most improbable loophole in the technical regulations. Funnily, the stricter and more complicated the rules get, the more severe those loopholes are. Back when the limits were more relaxed and everyone was shooting for the sky, the differences were more, you know, tangible. Back then, A had a better engine, B had a better chassis and then we watched it unfold. Now it’s all “so, turning this screw 57° to the right can be justified with the following paragraphs as not contradicting to those other paragraphs, and it also gives us half a second per lap”.

Major sports these days are a cutthroat business where the limits of the “humanly possible” were reached decades ago, and now everything that gives you any sort of advantage that is not in clear and unmistakable contradiction with the rules is considered “fair game”. And then you venture into regions that are in contradiction with the rules and simply hope not to get caught. You are supposed to take everything you can get, try to grab some more and then act as you deserve even more yet.

Having grown up with this image of sports and thus competition, we arrive in a place where everything can be justified by pointing out that X is going up against Y. A “competitive situation” is suddenly a sufficient reason to abandon all honour, humanity, grace and dignity. You are supposed to bite and claw, to kick and punch, to blow low and exploit, exploit, exploit. All is fair in love and competition.

I would like to introduce you to another sport – or, rather, remind you of its existence. One that is not as widely popular world wide, which doesn’t get much prime time spotlight. I’m talking about Snooker, a billiard variation with an emphasis on high precision and, most importantly, strategic thinking. Is Snooker competitive? Oh, boy, yes. Look at the faces of the players. They want it. They want it badly. So, what’s the difference?

The difference is that Snooker is a deeply aristocratic sport by its very nature and origin. You can’t play it in school yards, you can’t play it in pubs, half drunk. You have to overcome a high entry barrier to play it at all, and thus, it has traditionally been coined by the, dare I say, noble. Therefore, the standards the players are held up to are inherently higher. And I don’t mean merely things as the dress code. I mean moral standards. An example.

There is a rule that forbids you to, at any point, touch a ball, any ball, with any part of your body or clothing. This is something that can be very hard to keep track of, because it basically only becomes relevant in those cases where the intended shot is a highly tricky one, so the view will be obscured, and although the referee will try his best to have a line of sight, he’ll also do his best to accomplish this without distracting the player (ideally staying out of his field of view). You can’t exactly drive a camera in there either. Besides, in the vast majority of cases, the fleeting contact of, say, a sleeve with a ball wouldn’t do anything. So, what?

I’ll tell you what. It is considered and unexceptionally accepted the duty and obligation of a player to announce an illegal contact when he becomes aware of it. Immediately. Even if nothing has moved even by a dust particle’s margin. It’s a matter of honour, it’s a matter of morality, it’s a matter of what defines you as a Snooker player and earns you respect. Just as a pointer, respect is what earns you money through the discreet ad sticker you’re wearing on your breast pocket. It is not considered “okay” to run with it, just because no one noticed.

If you touch a ball, you admit it. If you are carefully swinging at the ball and your cue touches it before you execute the actual shot, you announce it. If you get a double contact (white jumps back from first contact with other ball and hits cue again before you pull it away), you say it. Even if no one noticed. Even if it costs you the frame, or the match. You don’t try and figure out how much you can get away with. You don’t care how much you can get away with. You care about fair and clean competition, and you are not interested in any unfair advantage.

If you get a fluke (i.e. a lucky shot with a much better outcome than initially planned), you apologise. You appreciate its results, of course, and the opponent accepts them gracefully, without any “lol ur lucky nuub” rage. Luck is part of competition, as it is of any process. But you apologise. When your opponent masters a particularly difficult situation successfully, or plans and executes a masterful shot, you congratulate. You don’t cry “hax” and rant about how his haircut is overpowered, but show respect for the skills of your opponent. It’s tradition. You just do it. Failure to comply with the moral standards of the game is as severe as a violation of its functional rules.

The bottom line is, competition does not have to be that dirty, grey-zone, cutthroat, no-respect-for-anyone dogfight we learned to accept it to be. You can compete, and compete on a very high level, without disregarding respect and morality. And next time you think about competition and what it allows and justifies, don’t think about what ESPN is showing right now. Think about Snooker. Otherwise you’re just tuning yourself to the wrong ideals.

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