I believe almost all the moral ugliness that mars athletic competition arises from the obsession with winning at all costs. Elite athletes, however, proclaim that the challenge to win drives them to excel and improve. This paradox of the drive to win helps explain the complex motivation around winning that drives excellence but tips over into cheating and dirty play.
The sports world is full of stories and myths and legends for whom one motto dominates. Vince Lombardi said it best although out of context, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The immortal Ricky Bobby's dad really got it clear when he announced to his son, "if you ain't first, you're last."
The motivational drive to win is fascinating because the ideal of winning in athletics remains inherently artificial. Sport competition involves a “game.” The artifice of the game constructs the rules of how to play and defines the goal—what constitutes winning. The designation of winning generates metrics that permit the athletes, spectators and judges to understand transparently whom wins.
The power of the metrics lies in the shared assumption that they measure something valuable. This value shapes the skills, knowledge, training and commitment that athletes and coaches invest in trying to win. The metrics and logic of achieving them mold the behavior and excellences of athletes who commit to mastering and winning under these rubrics.
The etymology of win hints at the depths of the idea. The word’s ancient Germanic roots grow from the idea of laboring and toiling. The word emphasizes striving and contending against not just others but nature or challenges thrown by life. Win applied to all aspects of life but mainly property. Later it took on the wistful idea of “winning the heart” of another through effort. Winning came late to sports and was not applied in German or English until mid nineteenth century.
The Germanic concept of winning matches the Greek roots for athlete. Athletes contest each other. The contest requires striving and sacrificing to achieve a goal. Both emphasize achieving ends that require effort and often pain or suffering to achieve an end. Winning in both traditions converges upon the notion of work, sacrifice, struggle to achieve a success.
The ideal of winning focuses the motivation and training of individuals who pursue athletic goals. In this train of thought winning becomes the marker of success in an endeavor. It fits with the deeper meaning of effort and striving to gain an end.
Winning creates a public and transparent way to test oneself against others in seeking a goal. Again as Lombardi said, "if winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?" These metrics of winning and proving one is the best at the competition can vary widely. The metrics can measure points scored against each other; they can measure sheer speed at a fixed task such as running or swimming. The distance in throwing or jumping might gauge the best. The crucial point to remember is all these metrics are artificial and linked to a ritualized game with rules—the definition of winning is ultimately arbitrary in sports.
Yet even with its arbitrary parameter and artificial aspects, winning engrosses fans and players alike because of its potential for clarity of outcome. People and competitors know who wins at the end of competition. Winning as striving ends with clarity and measuring across opponents and competitors.
Winning in sports competition has always enthralled competitors and spectators because it occurs in real time with uncertain outcomes. Unless rigged or cheated, athletic winning tests competitors in real unpredictable conditions. The testing challenges people in unique ways under uncertainty and calls forth maximum and smart effort to win. Upsets can occur, favorites can lose, people can get better over time and once lowly players can become masters. The risk resonates with life in the way a written show or other scripted entertainment cannot provide.
Testing oneself against others illustrates how the process of striving to win can bring out some of the best of athletics. Athletes who love their sport express excellence by pushing themselves to their mental, physical and emotional limits. Pushing to the limits and mastering higher levels of achievement engenders deep fulfillment and self-respect. This respect and fulfillment provide the deep intrinsic joy of integrated mental, emotional and physical achievement that they first knew as children expressing their physical qualities.
The athlete originally competes against baselines, against ideals of form and against themselves to stretch and extend their reach and competence. Athletes often work alone especially in the beginning as they discover their love and talent for a sport. This path does not necessarily require the need or desire to dominate or vanquish others.
Winning can then be a means and motivation to progress and grow in these domains. Individuals and teams test their expertise against others; winning or losing a competition identifies where their achievement stands relative to others at a similar level of stature. The press and test and drive to excel and demonstrate this in winning matches an intrinsic drive and appreciation with an extrinsic reward from the prize and approbation and stature of winning. A winning athlete can know the quiet satisfaction of being the best (if only for a moment).
The intrinsic satisfaction of expressive excellence can be joined by the joy of experiencing, as a fan or athlete, the beauty and delight in significant athletic excellence. Fans can appreciate the sheer beauty and technical virtuosity of athletes in competition. This involves not just technical appreciation but realizing the combination of strength, intensity and technique involved in physically tense competition where bodies and teams collide with each other. Players, coaches and spectators can all enjoy this. To the extent that desire and drive to win motivates perfecting this and giving one’s all during the competition it supports the aesthetic dimension experienced as intrinsic.
One of the ironies of winning as athletic obsession lies in the fact that the best athlete or athletes do not always win. Sometimes luck plays a part as the Greeks and Romans knew with Fortuna. Sometimes an injury limits one’s performance or someone becomes sick at the last minute. A referee can make a bad call or weather can undermine one’s strengths or play to the opponent’s strengths. Sometimes the coordination or plan of a team will permit the less talented athletes to win over a more talented but less unified team. While the best athlete and best team in a technical sense of consistent superb manifestation of the skills of the sport can converge with winning, this is not a necessary convergence. The best can lose and this is one aspect of the allure and often tragedy of sport. Many great athletes never end up winning championships because they compete on teams that fail. This accounts for the often criticized but perfectly understandable desire for great athletes on losing teams to use free agency or the market to end up with a winning team and have a chance to not only be great but win a championship.
This paradox that the best athlete does not always win creates a broader motivational opening for many athletes. It permits individuals and teams to deploy intelligence, collaboration and work ethic to overcome talent limits. It calls an individual to assess his or her own skills and improve or to assess an opponent’s skills and anticipate and prepare for them.
Winning, however, can take on a more ethically dangerous cast of motivation. Winning not only determines which person or team is better on a particular day and contest; it can metamorphose into exultation and domination. Again the roots of this can be deep. In the classical world the origins of play and athletic competition arose from their link to battle and war. In the contest of war, the outcomes are brutal and final. In classical times the losers were killed or sold into slavery. Their homes were conquered, their families taken as slaves or killed; their land taken or defiled. The game of war was played for mortal stakes. And the practice for war as exemplified in athletic competition reflected those brutal and naked stakes.
Winning wars and wining athletic competition become forms of domination. An athlete who carries over this mind set revels not just in their achievement but in the downfall of their opponents. They revel not just in their distinction but in the loss and humiliation of their opponent. The psychological matrix of winning becomes more extrinsic and mean spirited linked to its origins in war.
This relation to winning as validation for worth reduces to: I beat them therefore I am. If I lose, I am worthless. The driver here lies in the external vulnerability of the motivation and the ultimately limited or even hollow satisfaction. On this path, one's worth and excellence is not internalized and worn with dignity, but it is brittle, anxious, often hidden by bravado, and goaded by the need to prove oneself again and again and again. One can never enjoy the victory because one's worth is only a shell depending upon the next contest. The world and one’s relation to oneself resemble a king of the mountain game where any accomplishment depends upon external conquest and remains inherently unstable and endlessly challenged.
Seeking to win as domination is intensified in two ways. First many individuals or teams represent communities. Their team is linked to a city or country (as in the Olympics or World championships). This communal connection gives a patriotic gloss and increases the emotional stakes and investment for not just the team—often they may just be a collection of professionals gathered together for a season of competition—but to the fans who fanatically follow them. The followers invest their own identity and gain joy or sorrow at the wins and losses of the teams.
Fanatic followers may mark their life events by losses, wins and championships of their teams. Teams entwine with personal and communal histories. College sports in America along with deep local and national ties to professional teams all reflect this. This loyalty can blow up into violence or feigned even real dislike against other communities or teams. Some coaches thrive in demoniziong other teams; something most professionals resist since they may end up playing for those teams at some point in their career. This communal aspects links to cities, nations and colleges spreads an aura of emotional dynamism around team games and seasons and championships.
Owners add another variable to obsession with winning in professional sports. The game at its highest levels in countries across the world has become a game of billionaires or corporations. These ultra-rich individuals do not buy teams just for fun; but there is an immense amount of ego satisfaction and celebrity to team ownership.
The owners, many of whom are very successful business people or corporations, expect a return. They want a profit in money but above all in psychic return. Both profits arise from winning. Winning fills the stands and gets media contracts and creates high-sustained revenue streams. Winning increases their profile in the community where the team lives. The owner becomes a celebrity and benefactor who can be lionized and is heroic; the downside is that the owners can be vilified if they sponsor a consistent loser. This vilification can drive owners to focus obsessively upon winning. This obsession can play out in high expectations, very short time lines for coaches and players, and this pushes coaches and players to search for edges to win and keep their jobs and keep their owners happy. This passion to win or dominate and share in the extrinsic glory can obsess owners and fixate fans around teams. It drives the fanaticism of fans and the insane hype and hyperventilated language as well as the fights and meaningless strutting of fans who glory in the wins of the technically superb squad of mercenary athletes who make of “their” team.
Here you can end up with coaches illegally filming practices or putting up bounties to players who injure other players. Here you find coaches condoning or looking the other way when players use illegal performance enhancing drugs to get an edge or keep their job a little longer. The range of cheating and abetting or collaborating in it is wide and exacerbated by owner’s manias. At a fundamental level to win at all costs ultimately denies the wider context that sports requires both respect for the game and for one's opponents. The game and the opponents remain essential to the very activity itself and the sole focus on winning misses this wide and critical aspect of athletic respect and success.
This fanatic concern to win spills over into civic life. It can motivate communities and owners to go so far as to subvert the justice system. Criminal behavior by local athletes will be ignored or treated with leniency to protect the ability of the local team to win. The disturbing corruption ranges far and wide in civic circles around the globe.
Winning as the ethical centerpiece of athletic competition possesses both a powerful influence on growth and achievement. It can also devolve into squalor and cheating. At its best, however, it can grow from contests where champions or winners emerge from testing and developing carefully developed athletics skills and stances.
The desire to win leads to testing oneself against others as a way to increase one's own development as a human and athlete. The outcome of these encounters can be not only personal growth but excellence in the form of the sport driven by encounters with other athletes who may be more proficient. These tests also generate innovation as each competitor seeks to develop better ways to compete and refine their skills. This test forces the athlete to develop or stop. In this justification winning marks growth and excellence not simply dominance.
At the end of the day athletes should always remember another aspect of winning. The Romans called it “being a god for a day.” The critical point is “for a day.” Being a winner or champion is a precarious business that remains profoundly mortal. Any day you can be dethroned. The next day in season offers another contest. At the end of a championship season the winner possesses the honor for a cycle, maybe a year or a four-year cycle as in the Olympics or World Cup. The winner and champion is challenged again and can lose or fail or not even make it to the championships again.
Winning is a gossamer achievement, real & powerful, but delicate, fragile and doomed to evanesce at the next cycle of contestation. The cycle of fighting for and winning in sports, as in most of mortal life, offers a chance to grow into excellence and joy or to breed into meanness and domination. So winning connects with all such mortal aspirations.