Fine art of survival in the competitive arena

By Mike Rowbottom
Thursday 24 April 2014 04:24

Which male or female will be left standing at the end of ITV's Lord-Of-The-Flies-athon, Survivor? Which character on the remote island of Task ­ or whatever ­ will surmount all odds to claim the big cash prize? My money is on Mark Austin.

But watching the contenders, it is interesting to note the way some of them visualise success only to produce something very different. In one recent episode, the losing team in yellow spent the evening before an offshore test resolving to drown themselves rather than return to land in second place. They spoke about giving 100 per cent; perhaps more. They nodded significantly. And the following day they went out and floundered a hundred yards adrift as the blue team successfully dragged its booty ashore.

The yellows talked the talk; then sunk the trunk. What was it, I wonder, that they lacked ­ other than the energy which only a square meal can bestow? Confidence? Certainty, perhaps?

Some of the beaten team betrayed the passive blankness of those who knew they had reached their limits, while others appeared to be seething inwardly at the half-cock nature of the performance. It was a moment when some island sheep went one way, some island goats another.

To be a successful competitor ­ as top-class sport amply demonstrates ­ inward seething is good, if not essential. And there is nothing better than a grudge to keep those old seething pots bubbling.

Speaking to two Olympic champions in the course of the last week, I was struck by a similarity in their approach to the sacred business of winning.

David Hemery, who won the 400 metres hurdles at the 1968 Mexico Games, and James Cracknell, who earned gold last September in a rowing four that included the iconic Steve ­ soon to be Sir Steve ­ Redgrave, both stoked their competitive fire with an Olympian sense of injustice.

Hemery's victory in the thin air of Mexico could be described as drug-assisted, in that rumours of his US rivals' experimentation with steroids before the Games created an icy rage within him that translated into a huge adrenalin rush when the time came to run.

Asked how he might have felt had he not proved his point by winning, Hemery ­ a hugely articulate academic ­ was momentarily stumped for words. "I felt certain I could win," was all he eventually managed.

Cracknell's triumph also drew in part upon a sense of deep dissatisfaction. In his case, it was the memory of defeat by the Italian crew in the last big regatta before the Games which performed the necessary goading.

He admitted subsequently that his instinct was not to shake the victors' hands. And although Redgrave persuaded him to do the decent thing ­ "he told me to be as good a loser as I was a winner" ­ it still did not feel right to the youngest member of the four.

Reflecting upon the reasons for that, Cracknell came up with a verbal concoction which, in its way, perfectly illustrated the impregnable ­ if illogical ­ attitude of the natural-born winner.

"I didn't want to shake the Italians' hands because I didn't believe they were better than me," he said. "I think I could cope with losing if I had rowed my best and lost. But when I've lost I've never thought I've rowed my best. And I doubt if I ever would feel I had rowed my best if I had lost anyway."

Work that one out if you can. But even if you can't, it doesn't matter. The net result is that, if you are a competitive rower, James Cracknell is going to beat you.

Had either Hemery or Cracknell been in the England dressing-room when the discussions took place about whether to try to beat Pakistan in the second Test or set out for the draw that would have ensured the series win, you fancy that the matter would have been decided in the bold fashion that Alec Stewart argued for in vain.

Had either Hemery or Cracknell been in the yellow team on that camera-rich, neurosis-laden island in the sun, you fancy that the trunk of booty would have been transferred to the land so swiftly and efficiently that Mr Austin would have been obliged to check if it had been illegally fitted with an outboard motor.

As he lined up for his big final at the Games of 1968, a final in which, on paper, he was only seventh fastest, Hemery did not exchange words with any of the US athletes. He wasn't out on the track to socialise.

"In a way, my attitude was anti-Olympic," he recalled. "Because the Games are about co-operation as well as competition. But," he added, "competition comes first."

Spoken like a true Olympian.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments