Is winning the only thing that matters in sports?

Such a mantra should be treated with caution because sports success should only be pursued with good spirit and honour 

 pic by TMR FILE

IN MY opinion piece entitled “Malaysia’s Olympics Takeaways” published by The Malaysian Reserve in August, I pointed out how sports can help to lift the spirit of the nation and provide people with the feel-good factor. 

This however, to a large extent, depends on how much the values in sports are being understood and practiced by the society. 

Unfortunately, as it seems, sports are only able to bring the nation together when the athletes are winning. The positive vibe provided is often temporary which can be attributed to the societal mindset that emphasises winning over other things. Hence, the notion that sports can unite people becomes hypothetical, and more often than not, it is viewed simplistically. 

There is no doubt that sports have its own importance to society. However, the recent racial slur incident involving national shuttler, S Kisona leaves question marks whether the way how sports is being perceived can really bring people together or drift them further apart. 

While racist remarks directed towards athletes should not be tolerated, this is not uncommon. Over the years, we have seen many occurrences of athletes being ridiculed and humiliated on a personal level, if they are considered to be underperforming. Henry Russell Sanders, the UCLA Bruins football champion winning head coach once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing”.

This quote clearly signifies the importance of winning in sports. Such a mantra, however, should be treated with caution and should not be taken out of context. It should be noted that, in sports, it is not morally right to put winning above good sportsmanship. Sports success should only be pursued with good spirit and honour. 

Sports inculcates important values including fair competition, honesty, respect, humility, integrity and discipline. Therefore, overemphasis on winning can be damaging. 

It can hinder the attainment of positive values, making good intentions such as to bring people together difficult to achieve. 

It should be understood that, professional sports in general, is a commodity that comprises various consumed products. 

Income is generated through sponsorship, broadcasting rights, match day revenue, merchandise items and other associated commercial revenues. Under the circumstances where winning becomes an obligation, it should be expected that the attainment of good virtues is difficult. 

Even for sports like rugby that is long known to promote values such as humility and respect, maintaining such virtues is challenging. For instance, since rugby turned professional in the mid-1990s, it has encountered numerous scandals and moral related issues including cheating, racism, and indecent conduct towards match officials. 

It is worrying that overemphasis on winning mindset is evidenced even in sports at grassroots level. 

For instance, during junior age group sports competitions, some parents are observed to demonstrate poor sideline behaviour such as using foul language and threatening in an attempt to pressure referees’ decisions in matches involving their children. 

This is disrespectful and is against the core values of sports. It also shows desperation for short term results, rather than long term growth and development. 

As John O’ Sullivan, the founder of the Changing the Game Project pointed out, adults’ obsession for short term results is destructive to youth’s sports development. 

In addition, it influences youth to develop a false mindset that is based on the misconception that winning is the only thing that matters in sports. 

The “winning is everything” thinking may lead to cheating, corruption, interference, usage of illegal substances, aggressive behaviour among fans and other unsportsmanlike conducts. 

What we need now is a hard reset, with necessary changes at grassroots level. Parents, coaches, teachers and other members of the community shoulder great responsibility to ensure that positive changes take place.

This should start with the change of mindset and focus, from overemphasise winning to the development of youth that are holistic and balanced. Such an environment enables youth to acquire the right values in life and to help them in the development of their identity. 

Besides physical skills and mental attributes, youth need to be taught the core values of sports including social skills, teamwork and discipline. They need to be given the chance to play the sports of their choice and to focus on the development process. 

Youth, regardless of their physical characteristics and skill levels, should be provided with equal opportunities in training sessions and during competitions. They shall not be afraid to lose matches, as it is through such experience that they learn important lessons in sports and in life too. 

Sports at grassroots level can play a huge role in contributing towards a better society. If racial imbalance in participation of certain sports can be improved and more focus is given to long term growth and development, sports at grassroots level can go a long way to become an effective platform to bring people together, in the spirit of community and camaraderie. 

Dr Nurzali Ismail is the Dean of the School of Communication, Universiti Sains Malaysia. 

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.