*”It is sweet and right to die for your country”

Patriotism is one of humankind’s odder traits, at least on the face of it. For many hundreds of years, dying in a war hundreds of miles away from home defending/stealing for what were, essentially, the business interests and egos of rich men too powerful to even acknowledge your existence was considered the absolute pinnacle of honour, the ultimate way to bridge the gap between this world and the next. This near-universal image of the valiance of dying for your country was heavily damaged by the first world war, near-crushing “the old lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori*” (to quote Wilfred Owen), but even nowadays soldiers fighting in a dubiously moral war that has killed far more people than the events it was ‘payback’ for are regarded as heroes, their deaths always granted both respect and news coverage (and rightly so). Both the existence and extent of patriotism become increasingly bizarre and prevalent when we look away from the field of conflict; national identity is one of the most hotly argued and defended topics we have, stereotypes and national slurs form the basis for a vast range of insults, and the level of passion and pride in ‘our’ people and teams on the sporting stage is quite staggering to behold (as the recent London 2012 games showed to a truly spectacular degree).

But… why? What’s the point? Why is ‘our’ country any better than everyone else’s, to us at least, just by virtue of us having been born there by chance? Why do we feel such a connection to a certain group of sportspeople, many of whom we might hate as people more than any of their competitors, simply because we share an accent? Why are we patriotic?

The source of the whole business may have its roots in my old friend, the hypothetical neolithic tribe. In such a situation, one so small that everybody knows and constantly interacts with everyone else, then pride in connection with the achievements of one’s tribe is understandable. Every achievement made by your tribe is of direct benefit to you, and is therefore worthy of celebration. Over an extended period of time, during which your tribe may enjoy a run of success, you start to develop a sense of pride that you are achieving so much, and that you are doing better than surrounding others.

This may, at least to a degree, have something to do with why we enjoy successes that are, on the scale of countries, wholly unconnected to us, but nonetheless are done in the name of our extended ‘tribe’. But what it doesn’t explain so well is the whole ‘through thick and thin mentality’- that of supporting your country’s endeavours throughout its failings as well as its successes, of continuing to salvage a vestige of pride even if your country’s name has been dragged through the mud.

We may find a clue to this by, once again, turning our attention to the sporting field, this time on the level of clubs (who, again, receive a level of support and devotion wholly out of proportion to their achievements, and who are a story in their own right). Fans are, obviously, always proud and passionate when their side is doing well- but just as important to be considered a ‘true’ fan is the ability to carry on supporting during the days when you’re bouncing along the bottom of the table praying to avoid relegation. Those who do not, either abandoning their side or switching allegiance to another, are considered akin to traitors, and when the good times return may be ostracized (or at least disrespected) for not having faith. We can apply this same idea to being proud of our country despite its poor behaviour and its failings- for how can we claim to be proud of our great achievements if we do not at least remain loyal to our country throughout its darkest moments?

But to me, the core of the whole business is simply a question of self-respect. Like it or not, our nationality is a huge part of our personal identity, a core segment of our identification and being that cannot be ignored by us, for it certainly will not be by others. We are, to a surprisingly large degree, identified by our country, and if we are to have a degree of pride in ourselves, a sense of our own worth and place, then we must take pride in all facets of our identity- not only that, but a massed front of people prepared to be proud of their nationality in and of itself gives us a reason, or at least part of one, to be proud of. It may be irrational, illogical and largely irrelevant, but taking pride in every pointless achievement made in the name of our nation is a natural part of identifying with and being proud of ourselves, and who we are.

My apologies for the slightly shorter than normal post today, I’ve been feeling a little run down today. I’ll try and make it up next time…

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Why we made the bid in the first place

…and now we arrive at the slack time, that couple of weeks between the end of the Olympics and start of the Paralympics where everyone gets a chance to relax, wind down a little, and take time away from being as resolutely enthusiastic and patriotic as we have been required to for the last two weeks (or a lot longer if you factor in the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee). However, it’s also an undoubtedly good time to reflect on what have been, whatever your viewpoint, a very eventful last couple of weeks.

To my mind, and certainly to those of the Olympic organisers, these games have been a success. Whether you feel that it was all a colossal waste of money (although how anyone can think that of an event featuring the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter alongside James Bond is somewhat puzzling to me), or the single most amazing thing to grace the earth this side of its existence (in which case you could probably do with a nice lie down at the very least), its motto has been to ‘Inspire a Generation’. From a purely numerical perspective, it appears to have worked- sports clubs of all sorts up and down the land, even in niche areas such as handball, have been inundated with requests from enthusiastic youngsters after membership, and every other sentence among BBC pundits at the moment appears to include the phrase ‘the next Mo Farah/Usain Bolt/Ben Ainslie/Chris Hoy’ (delete as applicable).

However, I think that in this respect they are missing the point slightly, but to explain what I mean I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent. Trust me, it’ll make sense by the end.

So…, what is the point of sport? This has always been a tricky one to answer, the kind of question posed by the kind of awkward people who are likely to soon find an answer flying swiftly towards them in foot-shaped form. In fact, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to exactly why we watch sport, apart from that it is for some unexplained reason compelling to do so. But even if we stick to the act of participation, why do we bother?

Academics and non-sportspeople have always had a whole host of reasons why not, ever since the days that they were the skinny, speccy one last to be picked in the dreaded playground football lineup (I’ve been there- not fun). Humans are naturally lazy (an evolutionary side-effect of using our brains rather than brawn to get ahead), and the idea of running around a wet, muddy field expending a lot of precious energy for no immediately obvious reason is obviously unappealing. Then we consider that the gain of sport, the extent to which it contributes to making the world a better place is, in material terms at least, apparently quite small. Humankind’s sporting endeavours use up a lot of material for equipment, burn a lot of precious calories that could be used elsewhere around the world to help the starving, and often demand truly vast expenses in terms of facilities and, in the professional world, salaries. Even this economic consideration does not take into account the loss in income presented by the using up of acres upon acres of valuable land for sports facilities and pitches. Sport also increases the danger factor of our lives, with a heavy risk of injury ranging from minor knocks to severe, debilitating disabilities (such as spinal injury), all of which only adds to the strain on health services worldwide and further increases the ‘cost’ of sport to the world.

So why do we bother with it at all? Why is it that the question governments are asking themselves is “why aren’t enough kids playing sport?” rather than ‘why are so many of them doing so’? Simple reason is that, from every analytical perspective, the benefits of sport far outweigh the costs. 10% of the NHS’ entire budget is spent on dealing with diabetes, just one of a host of health problems associated with obesity, and if just half of these cases were to disappear thanks to a healthier lifestyle it would free up around an extra £5 billion- by 2035, diabetes could be costing the country around £17 billion unless something changes. Then there are the physical benefits of sport, the stuff it enables us to do. In the modern world being able to run a kilometre and a half in four minutes might seem like a pointless skill, but when you’re being chased down the street by a potential mugger (bad example I know, but it’ll do) then you’d definitely rather be a fit, athletic runner than slow, lumbering and overweight. Sport is also one of the largest commercial industries on earth, if not on a professional level then at least in terms of manufacture and sale of equipment and such, worth billions worldwide each year and providing many thousands or even millions of jobs (although some of the manufacturing does admittedly have a dubious human rights record). The health benefits of sport go far beyond the physical & economic too, as both the endorphins released during physical activity and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are known to increase happiness & general well-being, surely the ultimate goals of all our lives. But perhaps most valuable of all is the social side of sport. Whilst some sports (or, more specifically, some of the &%^$£*)@s involved) have a reputation for being exclusive and for demoralising hopeful youngsters, sport when done properly is a powerful force for social interaction & making friends, as well as being a great social equaliser. As old Etonian, heir his father’s baronet and Olympic 110m hurdles finalist Lawrence Clarke recently pointed out in an interview ‘On the track it doesn’t matter how rich your family is or where you’ve come from or where you went to school; all that matters is how fast you can get to the finish line’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist). Over the years, sport has allowed mixing between people of a myriad of different genders and nationalities, allowing messages of goodwill to spread between them and changing the world’s social and political landscape immeasurably. This Olympics was, for example, the first in which Palestinian and Saudi Arabian women competed, potentially paving the way for increased gender equality in these two countries.

Clearly, when we all get behind it, sport has the power to be an immense tool for good. But notice that nowhere in that argument was any mention made of being the physical best, being on top of the world, breaking world records because, try as one might, the value of such achievement is solely that of entertainment and the odd moment of inspiration. Valuable though those two things surely are, they cannot begin to compare with the incalculable benefits of a population, a country, a world united by sport for the good of us all. So, in many respects, the success of an Olympic games should not be judged by whether it inspires a new superstar, but rather by how it encourages the guy who turns up with him at that first training session, who might never be that good a competitor… but who carries on turning up anyway. The aim of top-flight sport should not be to inspire the best. It should simply be to inspire the average.

Who is most impressive?

As one or two of you may have noticed, the Olympics are almost over, prompting the requisite large party and giving some Brazilians a chance to wear odd clothes, dance about and generally play to stereotypes (probably- I’m feeling a little cynical today). However, in not too long a time that other, perhaps more understated, tetrannual sporting party will get underway: the Olympics’ disabled cousin, the Paralympics.

In some ways this will be a spiritual homecoming for the Paralympic Games- founded in 1948 for ex-servicemen with spinal injuries after the Second World War, it was the brainchild of Dr. Ludvig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Great Britain (the sports centre at Stoke Mandeville is still called the Guttmann centre in his honour, and one of the two mascots for London 2012 is called Mandeville). Guttmann was a Jew, and had emigrated from his native Germany in 1939 to escape persecution from the Nazi government of the time. He founded the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke in 1944, and founded the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ (to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics) in response to his feeling that sport could be use as a form of therapy for the seriously disabled, giving them purpose and self-respect. His vision was a great success, ballooning in size and popularity until, in 1960, it became officially tied to the Olympics proper (it wasn’t called the Paralympics until 1984). Guttmann himself was showered in praise for his work, being awarded (among other things) a CBE, OBE, and a knighthood in 1966.

Since then, the Paralympic movement has continued to inspire and amaze. Since 1960 non-war veterans have been eligible to compete, and multiple categories of disability have been entering since 1976. For many, the very existence of the Games has been a beacon of hope for lives torn apart by accident or injury, something to focus their otherwise unspent athletic energies upon, and thus fulfilling Guttmann’s vision of sport as a therapy. For a special few, they have been a springboard to their being able to compete amongst able-bodied counterparts, in sports ranging from sprinting to shooting to swimming.

Paralympians, obviously, do not have the physical capacity to match able-bodied competitors in the majority of situations, and as such, on a purely numerical basis, they are ‘less impressive’. Human nature dictates that we thus find them less interesting and compelling to watch for an extended period of time, a problem compounded by the sheer number of different classifications, leading to a huge number of medals and competitions and thus a confusing and some might say unfocused set of events that becomes impossible to keep track of (there are, for instance, six different classes of cerebral palsy 100m sprinting, giving the athletes concerned 6 times less attention, 6 times less focus and interest and making their medals seem only a sixth as valuable).  All this means that the amount of funding and (especially) media coverage offered to the Paralympics is significantly less than the Olympic equivalents, despite a great advance in recent years, and that they are simply not taken quite as seriously as Usain Bolt & Co.

All of which begs the obvious question: are Olympians really better than their disabled counterparts, or do the mental battles, financial struggles, and management of trying to hold down a paying job before we even consider the crippling physical impairment enough to render Paralympic Athletes even more impressive?

This question ultimately boils down to a question of which is more impressive- being the best in the world, or being merely far, far better than the rest of us mere mortals despite having to overcome. To consider an example, the world record for 100m sprinting in the most severe class of blindness is 11.03 seconds, less than a second and a half slower than Usain Bolt’s fastest ever time and far faster than anyone I happen to know- and this is done whilst entirely unable to see where you are going.

OK, you might say, but blindness doesn’t actually affect physical capability, so what about something that does. Consider the shot put, which involves throwing a large metal ball weighing 16lb (7.26kg) as far as possible with a rigidly monitored technique. 7kg is a surprisingly ungainly mass at the best of times, but when compacted into a small, dense ball thrown in one hand it becomes even harder to handle. I have thrown a shot in school, much lighter than an Olympic one, and got it about 2 metres. Karmel Kardjena is quadriplegic, as in all limbs severely damaged to the point of muscles not working properly, and can throw it 11.

These are just examples I can find on Wikipedia that make for a good comparison- I’m sure a dedicated student of the Paralympics could quote dozens more. Perhaps the most famous Paralympian of all, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (aka Bladerunner) won a silver medal in the 2011 World Championships INSERT BIT ABOUT 2012 WHEN HE’S DONE IT (competitions he entered despite a 2008 ruling, which he later successfully appealed, that the carbon fibre replacements for his amputated forelegs were giving him an unfair advantage). He is competing amongst the very best in the world, regardless of the fact that he has no calves or feet, and he is representative of the sheer quality that is surely present among Paralympians.

However, in order to judge our argument effectively, we must still consider how impressive our able bodied athletes are. I have already dedicated an entire post to just how superhuman these people are, but it’s worth taking another look around at the plethora of talent on display over the last fortnight to truly comprehend that. To take a parallel with Kardjena, let us consider the equivalent men’s shot put record. We must, of course, bear in mind that able bodied athletes are capable of not only taking a hopping run-up but also twisting the full trunk of their body, but even so, their achievements are staggering- the world record is over 23 metres (interestingly enough still shorter than the shortest discus throw in Olympic history, at 25).

So then, which is better? Well, to be honest it really comes down to a matter of opinion. Some may believe that the sheer quality of Olympic athletes cannot be made up for by the disabilities of Paralympians, whilst others will say that they more than cover for it and that the Paralympics is the home of real sporting greats. But, in many ways, this argument is entirely irrelevant, if only because we could argue until the end of time and not reach an answer. The real fact to acknowledge is simply that these Paralympians are clearly not here ‘just to take part’- they are serious athletes going in serious competition and capable of seriously amazing things. Whether Oscar Pistorius is better or worse than Usain Bolt matters not so long as we are all agreed that both of them are so great, so beyond what any of the rest of us can do, that they deserve every ounce of admiration we can muster. As the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, famously said: “The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well”

And sorry for the rather lame cop-out