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"God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast and when I run, I feel his pleasure."

Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire

Jesus and team spirit

Jesus and team spirit

What would Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics have thought of Canada favouring local teams in the recent games? Stuart Weir

Matthew Syed’s recent reflection on the extent to which Britain should exploit home advantage for the 2012 Olympics to maximize Team GB’s medal haul, made me wonder what Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement, would have thought about it all.

In a strategy called “Own the Podium” Canada made all the Olympic venues freely available to the Canadian team for practice but restricted access by other countries. The aim, of course, is to exploit home advantage to the max and so increase their medal tally.

The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclestiastes 1:9). There was accusation of home bias in the 1908 Olympics in London, being manifested in a string of protests by American team against rulings by the British officials.

The Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, the Right Rev Ethelbert Talbot, who was in London at the time, attending the Lambert conference of Anglican Bishops, (July 6-August 6, 1908) took the opportunity to speak out on the subject, making clear his disapproval of a winning-at-all-costs attitude.

Preaching at a service at St Paul’s Cathedral he asked “If England be beaten on the river or America outdistanced on the racing path, or that American [sic] has lost the strength which she once possesses. Well, what of it? The only safety after all lies in the lesson of the real Olympia – that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize. Our prize is not corruptible but incorruptible and though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share the equal joy of the contest. All encouragement therefore be given to the exhilarating – I might also say soul-saving – interested [sic] that cones in active and fair and clean athletic sports”.

That service at St Paul’s Cathedral was attended by a number of competitors and officials including Pierre de Coubertin. The Bishop’s words clearly resonated with de Coubertin, who had read Tom Brown’s Schooldays as a boy and had visited Rugby School to how Thomas Arnold integrated sport and religion.

Speaking at a banquet in London for the members of the International Olympic Committee a few days later, de Coubertin said “The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part…The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well”. De Coubertin repeated the words in 1912 and 1920, which were to become a kind of Olympic mantra.

But what constitutes fair play in any case? Ed Smith in his book, What Sport Tells Us About life, (Penguin, 2009) has a number of interesting views. He poses the question like this: “When is getting away with it acceptable? And when is cheating really cheating? It isn’t as simple as it sounds. There is a rule book as it is written, a rule book as it is played, and a rule book as it is watched and absorbed in the stands”. The result, he suggests, is that some activities which are clearly against the rules have been downgraded by social convention to merely ‘doing what you can get away with’.

Is it unrealistically pious to recall the words of Jesus ? “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Quite a contrast with doing what you can get away with’! We would want to be given reasonable access to Olympic venues in Beijing or Rio, so, following Jesus’ maxim, we should do the same for others. If London 2012 were to offer all comers good access to the facilities, could we perhaps set a benchmark for others to follow? I hope we do?

Matthew Syed in his conclusion sums up the dilemma, “My feeling is that the spirit of sport is paramount and that home advantage should not be exploited. But that is because I am a journalist, and it is a good line. Ten years ago, however, I would have bitten your hand off for an extra sliver of home advantage. And most of your forearm, too”

Published in Times on line February 19, 2010

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