An Old-fashioned View of Winning
You don’t always deserve what you get
What does it mean to win? When I was growing up, it meant finishing first in a competition of some kind. This simple definition was based on the belief that competition is healthy and good, and that the person who runs the fastest, jumps the highest or (in my case) eats the greatest number of butterscotch puddings in five minutes deserves special recognition.
But it seems this definition of winning is very oldfashioned. These days, everyone is a winner. Any readers who are parents will know that children’s sports are now defined by the idea that competition is bad, and that all participants in the grade-school track meet deserve medals. On the upside, the child who actually does win the race gets a medal too, but that’s probably small consolation when she or he sees it’s identical to the one proudly worn by the clumsy sloth who finished last.
I don’t know whether this revisionist view of competition and achievement originated in childhood athletics or some relativist social-theory salon, and I don’t really care. What I do know is that it has permeated adult life, too. Look at the world of recreational running, where every finisher gets a medal at the end of a marathon. You could walk the entire route, sitting down to rest every 30 minutes, and still get a medal. I’m sorry, but unless you actually ran the distance, you don’t deserve one. You’re not a winner just for showing up. You may actually be that other thing – what is that again? Oh yes – a loser.
The good news is that there are still facets of life in which winning really is winning – among them, competitive cycling. And by competitive, I don’t mean professional. I simply mean bike racing, in any of its glorious forms. Longtime readers will know that before my life was ruined by having children, I competed for a couple of seasons in masters road races in Ontario. I was an unspectacular athlete – in a total of about 25 races, I cracked the top 10 three times (and the bottom 10 once or twice). But these were real competitions, and there was no suggestion that any of us was a winner just for showing up.
Bike racing (at least the road scene) is not a welcoming community. It’s full of big egos, bluster and one-upmanship. The racers I spent time with were strong athletes. They also made sure you knew it. There was no modesty and very little room for mentoring the less experienced among us. The club I rode with had a motto: “No Rider Left Behind.” But I – and many others – were left behind plenty of times. On one epic training ride, I was left behind in a torrential downpour, nearly 100 km away from my car, in a rural area I’d never been through in my life. If I hadn’t had my pen knife and waterproof matches with me, I wouldn’t have been able to kill, clean, cook and eat two badgers and a squirrel. I have no doubt I would have perished in a ditch and been found the following spring.
“No Rider Left Behind,” indeed. Eventually, I realized that the club motto must have started out longer, and that the extra words must have fallen off the end at some point. I think in its original form it read, “No Rider Left Behind is Worthy of Being in this Club.”
As I became fitter year over year and began to compete, even the camaraderie I shared with racing friends was rooted in put-downs and friendly insults. I was once buying beer with a racing buddy. In addition to our usual favourite ales and lagers, I picked up a single, very expensive bottle of limited-run Scottish beer. “What’s that for?” my friend asked. “I’ll save it for when I win a race,” I replied.
“I don’t think beer keeps for 10 years,” he said. “Better check the expiry date.”
His words stung me, but I laughed. There was truth in them, too, because I haven’t yet won a bike race. I have the good excuse that I haven’t actually entered one in the past few years, but nonetheless, I failed in my mission. I did, of course, drink that expensive beer at the end of the racing season. As delicious as it was, it was bittersweet because I knew I didn’t deserve it. It did come with a medal though, representing its limited run. I still have that medal. One day I’ll show it to my grandchildren as I tell them a made-up story about winning a bike race in Scotland. With any luck, I’ll be senile enough to believe it myself.