There is nothing inherently wrong with success. It is, in all probability, hardwired into the human condition. Success in adapting to new circumstances was everything to our ancient ancestors. Success or failure in hunting could mean the difference between survival and an early death. Success in securing a suitable mate could mean the chance to grow the tribe and stay one step ahead. Whichever way you look at it, either in terms of cooperation or competition, or an intricate matrix of both, success has been at the heart of the human journey. The forms and definitions of success continue to vary over the millennia, but it is hard to envisage the history and future survival of we homo-sapiens without the drive to not only compete but to succeed both in collaboration with and at the expense of others. And we have some claim to be the most successful species ever.
Today the drive to succeed can be measured in a dazzling array of human endeavours; technological, financial, political, academic, artistic and of course, sporting. But ask anyone who has been deemed to be ‘successful’ and they are more than likely to admit, in private at least, to a dark and menacing downside to their publicly acclaimed success. Too much fame, too much pressure, too much pain in the pursuit of gain. Success in the modern era invariably comes at a cost which, if left to fester, can easily overwhelm and tarnish all that has been gained. Furthermore, modern day success can all too quickly turn to obsession. In professional sport it invariably leads to doping, match fixing, corruption and outright cheating. Excellence becomes tainted by human frailties and success is turned into its opposite.
But need it always be this way? We are surely entering an era where cooperation must always and everywhere trump selfish, egoistic competition. If we are to successfully survive the modern age, it seems blatantly obvious that our competitive urges must be subordinated and harnessed to the common good. And though there are a growing number of prominent politicians who are in denial, the science defiantly tells us that we are at the precipice; nuclear, biological and chemical Armageddon, environmental meltdown and financial collapse. Nothing is set in stone but all the warning signs are there for those that wish to see. The new breed of populist politicians tell us they want to make our counties great again but these same politicians have little or nothing to say about global cooperation. Its ‘us’ against ‘them’ in a race to the bottom. And by coincidence or design, professional sport seems to be mirroring that trend. Win at all costs and to hell with the greater good.
And, it can no longer be considered a case of just a few bad apples. Every professional sport seems to be implicated. Athletics, cycling, cricket, football and swimming. The list is endless. A clean sport is now more the exception than the rule. The drive to succeed is so powerful that governments, governing bodies and the athletes themselves will do just about anything to get an edge over their opponents. But the medals and trophies they ‘win’ soon become tarnished by allegations, proven or otherwise, of cheating and manipulation. Even the Olympics, that sporting jamboree that is meant to highlight the very best of human ideals, is so tainted by rumours of corruption that the whole damn thing has become a giant metaphor for our profoundly corrupted world. Can we do better? I honestly do not know.
My own experience of ‘success’ in sport has, in hindsight, been most instructive. The experience gained from managing London Progress, arguably Britain’s most successful table tennis club has laid bare the uncomfortable dialectic between the drive for success and the drive for a sense of shared community. Elite competition versus community participation was continually at the heart of the club dynamic and it is fair to say that in the pursuit of never-ending glory, there were more than a few casualties.
London Progress from its inception was a community based sports club, but through a combination of fortuitous circumstances and sheer determination, the club began an unprecedented long and uninterrupted sequence of winning. We simply won everything there was to win on the domestic front. Well, nearly everything. But as the mentality and habit of winning became entrenched, it could be argued that the once healthy habit became something more akin to an unhealthy obsession. And therein lies the danger. It soon became apparent that there were to be downsides to the win-at-all-cost regime.
It should be emphasised here though that there was no conscious decision to place winning above participation. It just crept up on us, season by season, until by the end decisions were being made that automatically ensured podium success without due regard to other factors. A winning logic had totally permeated the club and it was a logic that was not to be denied. Ten consecutive British League Premiership titles along with dozens of other national, regional and local triumphs started to take its toll on the community side of the club. Perhaps to the outsider, this was not apparent, but to those in the inner circle, a certain ruthlessness could be detected. And with that efficient ruthlessness came a sort of coldness to the never-ending victories. That coldness could be measured by the fact that by the tenth successive British title, none of the club management even bothered to turn up to the final match, so blasé were we that winning was guaranteed. The street arrogance was still there but the joy had somehow gone out of it.
How had we got to that point? Well it wasn’t all of our own making. Some clubs were desperate to stop our winning run. They started to import international players. We quickly realised that we would need to step up. We brought in our own squad of Chinese superstars – at great cost of course to the club finances. This had two unforeseen consequences. Firstly, it took out any competitive element to the British League. These Chinese players, although not in the very top tier of Chinese table tennis, were strong enough to romp through the top order of Britain’s top players – which they routinely did. Winning became mechanical. As long as we paid their expenses, our Chinese stars mechanically brought back the silverware. Sure, there were some truly great matches, but the final result was never in doubt. Unless someone could buy in a more powerful squad, the title would forever remain with London Progress. A satisfactory but in the end joyless
state of affairs.
The other unforeseen consequence was that our high-power team of Chinese internationals meant that our highly talented young club players could never break into the top team. We could have put them in but it might have risked an upset and the club decided against taking that chance. The club had produced and attracted some wonderful youngsters but faced with a future in the lower divisions of the British League, divisions that they routinely won year after year, a certain disinterest and demoralisation set in. The talented youngsters started to drift – either to other clubs or out of the sport altogether. We see it all the time in British football. Great academy players can never seem to break into their Premier League teams. They are either loaned out or sold off. All that great potential and hard work all for nothing. On a much smaller scale admittedly, London Progress had taken that very same path.
I don’t want to over-exaggerate the problem. To the very end days, London Progress maintained an extensive community programme, both in the local leagues and in the surrounding schools. Compared to the largely white middle-class racket clubs across the capital, London Progress was a beacon of inclusivity. Why, in the same year that we won out tenth title, the club was awarded National Sports Club of the Year, primarily for its inclusive work in the community. And it was a reward well deserved. But that award does not negate the fact that an increasing amount of our resources both financial and in manpower, went to maintaining the top of the pyramid at the expense of the base. It wasn’t a conscious betrayal of what we set out to achieve but rather the inevitable cost of pursuing elite success.
One could argue that this is just the way of sport, itself a reflection of the human condition. The strong get stronger and the weak fall by the wayside. You see it all the time in every sports club, big or small, professional or amateur. When a youngster shows particular aptitude, coaching resources naturally seem to flow in their direction. Everybody wants to be associated with a potential winner. There seems to be an unwritten law; for every child that makes it in sport, dozens more are destined to fall by the wayside. Who remembers those kids that nearly made it? Who remembers those kids that were just happy to be there, to be around and to make up the numbers. So preoccupied have we become with ‘winning’ that the ones that never quite made it are inevitably marginalised and all too soon forgotten. We only seem to want to remember and celebrate the high-flyers.
Around about the time of London Progress’s demise, a new and unexpected table tennis phenomena burst onto the London scene. And it was quite by accident rather than some planned and calculated initiative. An arts charity decided to place dozens of pianos in public places to encourage the citizenry to spontaneously sing and play. It was appropriately called ‘Sing London’. So successful was this project that some bright spark came up with the idea of doing the same thing, only with table tennis tables. Ping London was born. Bats and ball were made readily available and free of charge and the general public did the rest. That was five years ago. Now it has become so popular that it is rolled out every summer across the entire country. Ping England is now, it seems, unstoppable. What I love about this initiative is its entirely unstructured, spontaneous essence. There is nothing to win and nobody to leave behind. Like the fun runs that are springing up across the nation, in every town and city, Ping England is the perfect antidote to the win-at-all-cost attitudes that has permeated so much of the sporting world. To merely pick up a bat and play is triumph enough.
West London Ping, combining fragments of the old London Progress community programme with the new thirst for table tennis in the capital, tries to encapsulate the spirit of Ping England. Although we still like to win things, particularly in the English Schools competitions, the emphasis has shifted decisively in the direction of participation. Rather than seeking to build a sporting empire built on winning, success is now measured in terms of the number of participants, from the very young to the very old. In any one week, some five hundred children across West London are given the chance to play table tennis, and the numbers keep growing. Yes, West London Ping has helped to produce some very skilful players, but significantly, the aim is not to hold on to them but rather to encourage them to keep playing and to join nearby clubs if they so wish.
In a sense, West London Ping is the antithesis to a traditional club and in some respects, the antithesis to London Progress. Whereas London Progress sought to mercilessly crush all opposition, whether local or national, West London Ping seeks to form an informal partnership with all those pinging across West London. Whether it ultimately gets drawn in again, against its better instincts, to that ruthless winning mentality, remains to be seen, but the intent is clear; participation should take precedence over elite performance. Cooperation should take precedence over competition. The pendulum has shifted and it feels good.
End JPK Copyright 21/2/17
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