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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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August 19, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 18

  I know we won, but what did we lose by winning?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

It's possible that things may be getting out of hand. Simple things. Important things. Unbelievable things.

I understand it when it’s global economics.

I can deal with it when it’s international politics.

It only makes sense when it’s part of that great morass in life called ‘human relations,’ always fuzzy, never ‘scientific’ in the truest sense of the world.

But sports? The Olympics, of all things? Relay racing in a swimming pool? It seems that we have finally managed to take what used to be called sport and turned it into a laboratory event, a social fiasco, an international incident.

Here’s the situation: I read in an international newspaper this morning that the US freestyle team beat the Australian team in the 200mx4 Freestyle Men’s Relay. I’m happy for them. It must be a great moment in any young athlete’s life. After all, the whole world is watching. It’s the event of a lifetime. It has glitz and glamour and eternal prestige attached to it. It’s not just any little college swim team event.

But here’s the sting: They ‘won,’ the newspaper says, by 1/1300th of a second! You heard me: One thirteen hundredth of a second.

Now that is competition with a vengeance.

No human eye could possibly see the difference. No referee could possibly have been sure. No crowd could possibly have poured instantly into the pool to celebrate the event.

And nobody did this time either. Only a machine, a computerized camera, could possibly have measured that kind of difference.

Twenty-five years ago nobody could have either won or lost like that.

And my question to myself this morning was, frankly, Should they? After all, they don’t even do this to horses.

What was really gained by that kind of subatomic gradation of victory?

Was it impossible to imagine that, as a matter of fact, both teams had won, had left the rest of the field behind them in the dust, had mastered the course and spent their bulging muscles to the hilt. Does 1/1300th of a second really mark any kind of superiority?

What it does do, of course, is make one team ‘winners’ and the other team ‘losers.’

It asserts some kind of political dominance, I suppose, to the small-minded who insist that the Olympic Games are non-political and then politicize them at every opportunity.

It gives one team gold and the other team silver in a culture where collecting trophies is some kind of mark of character and coming in second these days is tantamount to losing.

It turns sport into technology and pits teams against the camera as well as against their competitors.

It makes “loss” a mockery.

In this case there is something very painful about both the winning and the losing. It stands to leave the “winners” more aware of their luck than they are sure of their skill and leaves the ‘losers’ with an eternal ache for what might have been, could have been, should have been.

Can anybody really argue, other than technically, of course, that the Australians lost? Did either team themselves, in fact, really know who ‘won?’ Twenty-five years ago we would have called it a “dead heat?” A tie.

Would it have been morally unthinkable to consider giving two gold medals for this event, which is certainly what would have happened 25 years ago without the cameras, or is ‘winning,’ dominance–if you can call 1/1300th of a second ‘dominance’–the only purpose of the competition? And did that sliver of a particle of difference really ‘decide’ the dominance of anything?

And isn’t it just possible that this kind of hair-splitting in head to head competition simply made both winning and losing meaningless?

But at the end of the day, the even greater human question may well be, So what does this event mean for the rest of us? Not, surely, that we know who may really be the fastest relay swimmers in the world.

But it may mean that winning, by any definition, is all that counts.

It may mean that we are all defining triumph and worth by too close a margin. Once upon a time we put tape measures around black craniums to measure their skulls, or the distance between their eyebrows, or the height of their brows and on the basis of those infinitesimal mathematical measurements, we declared them losers, too.

That attitude, with which we are infecting even amateur sports now by way of digital cameras, may be exactly what is undermining, eroding, demeaning the human part of every political and economic enterprise we have.

“What I know most surely about morality and the duty of (human)kind,” the philosopher Camus wrote, “I owe to sport.” My fear is that Camus may have been more right than we realized. Sport may be an early warning sign of the appetites we are training the young to bring to the rest of life. Or it may be a signal of how we ourselves are conducting them now. It may be telling us how narrow are our measures of worth and equality. Or it may be a sign of how ridiculous are our standards.

In which case, sport that once was child’s play may have become too dangerous for our children and need to be packaged with a warning on the label.

From where I stand, I’m not really sure who won the 200m relay freestyle competition at this year’s Olympic Games. I have a notion that they both did. My greater concern is that as a people, by insisting on a winner by a fraction of a fraction of a second, we didn’t lose more than they won. To tell you the truth, I’d be inclined to let the teams compete and leave the digital cameras at home.

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