Those left

The date 11 November has added poignancy in my family.

In addition to our family history in the First World War, it is the day thirty-six years ago that my brother, John, died.

John was a professional footballer at the time of his death. He was 26 years old.

His decision to take his own life has affected my actions ever since that day. It has connected me with the loss others feel on this day … and every day.

Since John’s death there have been many cases of professional sport people taking their own lives. These are just a very small part of the enormity of suicide deaths in society.

In recent years, I have been struck by the growing research into players’ well being and I have been following research in Germany. I thought Ronald Reng’s biography of Robert Enke (2011), A Life Too Short, was a very important contribution to this conversation. Robert died on 10 November 2009.

Ronald’s book was awarded the sports book of the year.  Rob Bagchi said of this award:

Two of the previous three winners of sports publishing’s oldest and richest prize, Marcus Trescothick’s Coming Back to Me and Brian Moore’s Beware of the Dog, were fearless accounts of the ravages that self-doubt and depression can wreak on elite sportsmen. Reng’s acutely observed book completes a trilogy of required reading not only for those who have been flippant and unsympathetic to the issue of mental health among well‑rewarded professionals in the past.

Ronald made a very significant point about Robert … “the friendships he struck had clear boundaries and no one, apart from his family, knew of the turmoil he suffered”.

In my brother’s case we had no indication whatsoever of any depression issues. Thirty-six years is a long time for retrospection, dealing with a sense of guilt and the bereftness of loss.

So 11 November is one of those days when those left reflect. John was 26 when he died. In my small town of Braidwood, New South Wales, we will be remembering 88 loved ones who left for the Great War from a rural community and did not return. They lie in foreign fields. Most of them were considerably younger than, John and Robert.  All 90 were profoundly loved.

Photo Credits

Pictures of John and Robert from Wikipedia.

The Spirit of Sport

Tokyo 1964: Great Britain's Ann Packer (left) silver medallist acknowledges defeat at the hands of Australia's Betty Cuthbert (centre), winner of the 400m. Bronze medallist Judith Amooreis on the right.

Introduction

Two events this week in the world of athletics have sent me off thinking about the essence of sport. By coincidence, a friend, Daniel O’Leary has been thinking about spirituality in sport too.

Daniel and I share a fascination with one of the events of the week, Usain Bolt’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships. I watched it on TV live when I was in England. Daniel was there trackside.

The second event of the week for me was news of Betty Cuthbert‘s death.

Daniel has given me permission to share his thoughts on his experience of being present at the 100m final in London. He and I have been discussing sport for the last thirty-five years since we were first introduced by my wife Sue at St Mary’s College in Strawberry Hill.

This is what he wrote.

Gold of the Spirit

A picture of Daniel O'LearySeated near the finish we held our breath. The intense hush was shattered by a gun. Bolt blasted from the blocks. The noise was deafening from a packed stadium. It was pure spectacle. Inside ten seconds it was over. Our hero, after all, was mortal.

But in the drama of the day, was he more than that? At the bitter point of his defeat, did he not prove himself to be a golden hero of the soul? While thousands vented their gall on the new and quickly humiliated champion Justin Gatlin, we watched the warm exchange of words and hugs between victor and vanquished. There was a grace in the way Usain Bolt acknowledged his shared humanity with his conqueror, showed his respect and appreciation for another great athlete. ‘’He has done his time,’ he said later,’ he is a good person, he has worked hard, he is my friend and an excellent person’. And then there was an iconic moment, carrying traces of the Prodigal Son, when Gatlin bent his knee before Usain Bolt.

Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin embrace

At a pinnacle of a celebration of worldwide sporting achievement it was a sad and shameful day for the furious and booing fanatics described by champion Welsh hurdler Dai Greene as ‘savage’. ‘The media and the masses have turned Justin Gatlin into a villain,’ tweeted James Ellington, former British international 100m sprint champion. It is one thing to be deeply disappointed that your hero lost; it is quite another to spit out bile on the one who ended his dream. If anyone lost in disgrace it was the ‘fans’. They clouded a happy summer’s evening that was full of beauty, blessing and delight for families into an ugly mist of personal pique. The weather changed then and many sensitive souls felt a chill. In a world riven by dark forces another golden opportunity for a brief but unique experience of universal harmony was shattered.

There is a deep and invisible power at the heart of the sporting life. Australian Herb Elliott, who took the 1500 metres gold medal in Rome (1960), wrote of the ‘spirituality’ of athletic competition. So did North American Ed Moses, another world champion (400m), when he spoke of the influence and force of sport to unite the world. And so did Nelson Mandela when he said that sport ‘can create hope and peace where there was previously only despair’. Golf hero Paul McGinley who witnessed some really demeaning behaviour at a Ryder Cup competition wrote, ‘intense competitiveness that also touches the soul is the essence of great sport.’ There is more to sport than the medals.

There is an invincible, un-extinguishable light of the spirit that lasts longer than the shining of a gold medal. We were not blessed with such an enlightenment on Saturday night, 5 August. But we do have sublime examples of it.

One such moment happened in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. World Champion Jesse Owens was watching his dream slipping away. He had fouled his first two attempts at the long jump. His blond German competitor Ludwig ‘Lutz’ Long explained to him how he could avoid a final foul by using a simple strategy. Owens took his advice and went on to win the gold medal with a final leap of 8.06 metres. And Hitler stormed out of the stadium. Moved by the spontaneous graciousness of his closest rival, Jess Owens later said, ‘It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have won and they would not provide the gold- plating for the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment’.

Betty

Daniel and I have not discussed Betty. Daniel was involved in athletics when Betty was running in Melbourne and Tokyo.

I was just four at the time of the Melbourne Olympics when Betty ran into history

This was Betty in 2012

Betty’s personal best times were:

  • 100 metres 11.4s
  • 200 metres 23.2s
  • 400 metres 52.01s

Her personal best for the 200 metres would have positioned her just 0.8s behind the winners of both semi-finals in London 61 years later. Her 100 metres time would have put her 0.55s behind the winner in London. Her 400 metre time would have put her in contention for a 7th place in the London final and 2.12s off the winner Phyllis Francis.

Spirit as the New Edge

Daniel and I came to Usain Bolt from different epistemological traditions. I think we share a profound humanistic commitment to the spirit of sport. Betty epitomises everything I hold dear about sport. I love the idea that an 18 year-old can arrive in Melbourne and win three gold medals.

Betty Cuthbert flying at the Melbourne 1956 Games is a feature of Chapter 15 of the book From Athens With Pride, written by Harry Gordon and launched in Sydney on 9 May 2014.

However, the picture at the top of this post is my enduring memory of Betty. I saw her race in Tokyo in 1964 on a black and white television in my home in North Wales. The commentary that day focused on Ann Packer who won the silver medal for Great Britain. But I do remember the commentator, David Coleman, making specific mention of the spirit that connected all three athletes at the end of the race.

I am not making an argument for a golden age but do want to champion a different kind of sport, at all levels.

I hope that we can stop talking about podiums and talk more about a common humanity that is expressed through athletic effort. This effort is ethically driven and focused on process rather than outcome.

Photo Credits

1964 Final (AOC Media Centre)

Daniel O’Leary (Begin with the Heart)

Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt (Daily Star)

1956 (AOC Media Centre)

What comes after disruption?

I have spent the morning reflecting on Wayne Goldsmith’s Facebook post about the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

The introduction to his post includes this observation:

It’s breaking my heart – and I am outside the Australian system these days – I can’t imagine what it must be like to actually work there.

I empathise with Wayne’s sentiments.

I was fortunate to be at the AIS for five years. I came to Australia in 2002 to be part of a vibrant culture that had so impressed me at the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000.

I do think the Sydney Games disrupted world sport and in doing so placed the Australian high performance system at peril. The triumph for Great Britain at the London Games in 2012 is one example of the disruption being amplified beyond Australia. I think too that the flourishing of Japan and New Zealand among other Olympic nations is part of this process.

Australia’s high water mark in 2000 set a level for other nations. It demonstrated that a commitment to a daily training environment guided by coaches and supported by passionate service providers was scaleable in any country committed to an ethical high performance system (and to those who were not).

Australia had to deal with internal forces of disruption too. Applied sport scientists became targets for increasingly well-funded football codes (particularly rugby league and Australian rules football). Each professional club became a micro institute of sport emboldened by the AIS model.

I believe it was profoundly difficult to address the disruption caused by Sydney 2000 in a federal political structure without a commitment to long term funding for sport. The entrepreneurial spirit that had characterised the AIS in the 1990s appeared to be more constrained by the political climate in the decade after the Games. 

The constraints upon the AIS coincided with professional sport in Australia exploring innovation. These codes were able to manage risk (and face the consequences) rather than avoid it.

Wayne has a ten point action plan for a relevant and resurgent AIS. His point 6 relates to coaching and the role a national coaching institute might play. I see this as a bottom up approach vital to Australia having a values-based sport system.

I do think this is a time of a whole of sport response to why we lay claim to sport being a central life interest for Australians. Our future is more about people than it is about facilities.

I do believe that we have an immense task ahead of us to re-embed daily physical activity in our culture. Teachers and coaches in the community are for me the synapse that allows us to think globally and act locally.

The next decade is a time when a humble Australian sport system might re-invent itself. We might learn from, rather than copy, others whom we have disrupted.

More than ever, we need to persuade young people that sport can be a life interest nourished by a process of learning rather than an economic investment in medal outcomes that loses the soul of personal engagement.

Wayne’s post and my experience at a local school yesterday prompt me to think we can do better by being ourselves.

At the school, it was the last day of term. The whole school (130 pupils) was out in the playground … skipping. It was a torrent of activity and laughter. Year 6s cared for Kindergarten children, boys and girls played together effortlessly. I was delighted that my granddaughter, Ivy, was right amongst it.

I am naive enough to think that care is at the core of the renewal of Australian sport. Our point of difference could be our cultural diversity.

A values based sport system lets go of outcomes, I believe. The outcomes will take care of themselves because in not aspiring to be the best sport system in the world, we can be through our efforts.

I am profoundly grateful to Wayne for enabling me to reflect on my experiences. I love the idea that we can flourish by de-emphasisng facilities and emphasising our people.

Photo Credits

Mongarlowe (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

St Bede’s (School web site)