Sunday August 5, 2012
Playing to win
By DZOF AZMI
Too often, fans forget the effort and performance involved when an athlete finishes empty-handed.
TODAY, we will see a badminton match truly worthy of an Olympic final: Lee Chong Wei versus his nemesis Lin Dan. The last time the pair met, Chong Wei had to pull out because of an injured shoulder. Since then the Malaysian has been hit by a string of other injuries and, as a result, has lost his world No. 1 ranking.
Overall, Malaysia has not done so well in the Olympics so far. Archers Haziq Kamaruddin and Cheng Chu Sian both lost in the first round of the men’s individual event. The latter was knocked out by teammate Khairul Anuar Mohamad.
Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong came in eighth, as did Bryan Nickson Lomas and Huang Qiang in their respective synchronised 3m springboard events – out of eight competitors in total.
Even Chong Wei struggled earlier this week to win his first round qualifying game – against a player ranked 45 in the world.
Nobody would describe this as a successful Games for the country (at least, not yet), but it’s ironic that success is so judged in a competition that spawned the phrase, “The most important thing ... is not winning but taking part.”
Truth is, Malaysians are not happy if our athletes don’t win. Very rarely do I hear local fans applaud a good performance, even when someone loses a game. Each time Lin Dan beat Chong Wei, the latter was pushed to raise his game to a higher level. And yet, after each defeat, most of the talk here would focus on the deficiencies in the Malaysian’s playing.
I think this relates to how Malaysians, as a whole, view failure. It starts from school, where there is a right or wrong answer for every question, and not much in between. So as we grow up, we learn to try to not fail.
I once saw a timeline for developing IT startup companies that implied they had to work on a business plan for 24 months before writing the code. I understand it’s important to know what you’re doing before implementation, but two years seems excessive!
In comparison, consider the example of Internet entrepreneur Bill Gross, who demonstrates how startups can develop a business plan in only eight weeks. It depends on getting quick feedback on every iteration, and not being afraid to start again from scratch if needed (chime.in/user/Bill/chime/116030027211026432).
So instead of using failure as a platform to step up, we use it as a reason to not even start.
Even expatriates working in Malaysia are warned about the consequences of failing in public, with one website stating that “failure in Malaysia causes a long-term loss of confidence” and that “inter-cultural sensitivity is going to be required”.
Yet, it is only by failing that we learn how to be better, and sports is one place where we can fail safely and improve by building upon our mistakes. At times, it is even worth doing something even though you know you’re going to fail.
Of course, you can take this to the ridiculous extreme. Consider the case of the eight female badminton doubles players who intentionally tried to lose their games so as to gain a favourable second round draw. They were disqualified as a result.
They clearly had not read carefully the second part of Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic maxim: “The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
To fight well implies you must have a cause. These athletes have made their sport a cause, and being good enough to represent your country at the Olympics should be an achievement in itself. Of course winning does matter, since it is seen as the ultimate achievement.
But in reality, just competing at your best is not enough.
Otherwise, we wouldn’t have fencer Shin A-Lam so visibly upset over a horrendous refereeing decision that she stayed on the fencing piste while South Korea protested on Monday. Or the storm that brewed after the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association implied that Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen could only have swum so well if she had been taking performance-enhancing drugs.
If it’s only the taking part that counts, would there have been so much controversy in either case, and would not winning have mattered so much?
There is a tendency to talk about “medal hopefuls” before an international competition, and the officials and the media will play up the athletes’ chances. Consequently, the public expects a lot from them.
So let me point out a few things about the athletes at the Olympics: Khairul had to shoot 30 points out of 30 to beat compatriot Cheng (who shot 29 points) in the final round of their archery duel, with Khairul eventually reaching the quarterfinals. Pandelela was the only diver who competed in both the synchronised diving 3m and 10m springboard events. And Chong Wei, in what may be his last major tournament, is recovering from an ankle injury and taking painkillers to make it through every game.
Gold medal? It’s just a nice bonus at the end of it all.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.