Friday, August 15, 2008

Winning is everything

Well, not quite but it is really much better than not winning. And I am not talking here about the participants. It is all about the interested parties; specifically, myself as a parent watching my children compete in sports. Now I have mentioned my newfound bias when it comes to my eldest daughter in Taekwondo competitions. But yesterday she competed in her school's Athletics Day and it all crystallised for me. You know all of that stuff they feed you -- that "it is just great to watch them being out there and trying their best" -- you know, the stuff they must have fed my parents. I am here to tell you it is all a big lie. Well, pretty much. Just watching them might be satisfying but watching them actually win is much much better.

But first some context. The Athletics Day is a day where they grab a few classes at a time -- in this case, my son was in 2nd grade at some other competition that didn't bother inviting parents while my daughter was at the 3rd through 4th grade one that did invite parents -- and truck them out somewhere to a real track and have them run a mini-olympics type thing pitting houses (yes, this is Australia, just like Hogwarts) against one another. My kids were decked out in green for the day (I think they are in Slytherin) and off they went.

Then came the other thing about Athletics Day; because I presume someone has booked and paid for a track, it would happen come rain or sun. And, of course, raining it came. The problem for we parents was that where there was seating was a sun-shield. Near as I can tell this had frightened away the sun but for rain this acted imperfectly and in places like a giant funnel of water onto the seating area. No doubt some architect had decided that since no one would surely compete when it is raining, no one would be watching either so there was no point in creating a rain-shield or as it is commonly called elsewhere, a roof. This was not lost on the parents standing there as they tried to convince themselves that it is satisfying just to "watch the kids participate."

You may be thinking at this point: what about the kids? Surely they were not happy about running around in the rain. Well, you don't know Australia. We are made of tougher stuff when it comes to sport. For instance, just today as I was driving around delivering Child No.1 to some Saturday morning (thankfully inside) activity, we saw hundreds of kids at a sports ground learning Australian Rules Football in the pouring rain. She remarked: "That training company is not good. They don't allow you to tackle other people there. I mean, what is the point? That makes it just like soccer but where you can use your hands. Actually, in real football they don't even allow tackles above the head. At lunchtime we are free to play for real." You could hear the disdain. And she went on: "and they are playing there on grass. How soft is that? We play on the ground." Of course, they had to do that because until recently there was a drought and no grass. But that also explains the sheer volume of cuts and torn uniforms she comes home with.

But drought was not the issue yesterday. And as I stood there wet and in the cold, my daughter flew past her classmates in the 100m hurdles and won by a mile. They gave out ribbons based on their place and so, unlike other events, had the incentives right. Suffice it to say, it was all worth it. I as thrilled and excited and as I looked around at the other parents it is pretty clear to me that they were wishing they had a daughter such as mine. Too bad for them. The jig was up: winning is really great.

You know, between events I tried to empathise with the other parents but I have to tell you, it didn't happen. Let's face it, no one apologises for watching their team win at the Olympics or anywhere else. My daughter is my team and that was just how it was going to be. If I felt sad for anyone it was for my own parents who never got any similar joy from myself or my brother. Then again, they should just come out and watch the grandkids.

Actually, I should say grandchild. Child No.1 came home with ribbons for every event she competed in. I did watch in anguish as another, similarly competitive girl, pipped her at the end of the 200m. Child No.1 was in the outside lane and kept looking around and that cost her precious time. The two of them were miles ahead of the others as they killed themselves in getting over the line first. So if you find my gushing a bit much now, imagine what this post would have been like had she won that battle.

Child No.2 came home with a 'Well done' ribbon. That is what they give to those who didn't get a placed ribbon. He didn't mind. These sporting competitions aren't very interesting for him and so our expectations weren't high. We had to resort to the usual parenting encouragement.
"It's good that you had fun."

"Dad, it was raining and normal people would be inside."

"But at least you got that colour ribbon. No one in this house has got one of them before."

"Actually, I think I have lost the ribbon."

Now I don't want to suggest any asymmetry of love. But let me tell you, if faced with a choice of whom I am going to stand in the rain and watch, my choice is clear.

[Update: See Emily Bazelon for a more balanced view of competition and winning.]