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Rules of the Game

Posted: October 20, 2012 - 7:50am

We watched the Summer Olympics with enthusiasm. Mostly the individual achievements: swimming, gymnastics and track and field especially, as I expect most of you did, too. I have the greatest admiration for the young athletes who have dedicated their lives to being the best in their chosen sport. They have given up a lot that can’t be relived and sometimes for an audience that watches hoping to see them fall.

I really don’t think NBC covered the event all that well. It was better in years past when you could pick it up several times a day on different channels. At least you knew what was going on when, and were not forced to watch what some TV mogul thinks you want to watch (beach volley ball as an example). While I’m happy to see the USA win a medal every time, I’d also like to see some of the other events whether we’re in the running or not.

In the old days we cheered for the home team even when we knew they might not win. Loyalty was part of sportsmanship and good sportsmanship was as important as winning. Then somewhere along the line, the sportsmanship trophy became the “Miss Congeniality” of school sports: You might not be pretty enough to win but Hey! you’ve got a great personality.

Our first team experience in elementary school (we called it Grade School) probably was Red Rover. The teams spread out in a line, hands linked, facing each other. One side chanted “Red Rover, Red Rover, let (someone) come over” and that person from the other side ran at the line as fast as he could with the intention of breaking through. If he did he got to return to his own team taking one of the people where he broke the line with him, if he didn’t break it, we kept him. In the end, the team with the most people was the winner. It didn’t take first graders long to know where the weak spots were and which students were the best runners/busters. Choosing teams became a lesson in strategy learned very early. I was never the first chosen, unless it happened to be a spelling bee, but never the last either. And at least in my grade, each student had his strengths (or a great understanding teacher) so no one was always the last one chosen, nor always the first.

I liked Flying Dutchman, too. Not really a team event, but co-operation was important. The class made a big circle, holding hands tightly. Two students strolled around the outside of the ring watching for an unsuspecting pair then broke their hands apart with a big slash and took off running at top speed.. The separated couple had to run in the opposite direction from the original pair. Whoever got to the open spot first was the winner and the other couple was the “Flying Dutchman.”

Later, after we knew about taking turns and were learning about rules we played kickball in the gym and softball on the playground most often as work-up games, taking up where we left off each recess. Fourth graders love rules and sometimes we added one or two to established procedure just to make things more interesting.

When did sports stop being fun? The first thing one learns about games usually from the parents while playing some childhood board game is that someone always wins and the other participants do not. When I was a kid, even when my kids were kids, no one gave every player a trophy just for showing up. Our self esteem was not destroyed because another group won the race. If our team was at the bottom the incentive was to work together harder so we might win next time. That built self esteem: believing we could win if we worked hard at it.

But sometime in the last 50 years, winning has become all important. So important that cheating to win has become the “new normal” and the only thing more important than winning is to bring down the winner as fast and as hard as possible. If Number One happens to be a good guy eventually someone will examine every minute of his life to find where he went wrong assuming he (or she) can’t possibly have done all that without cheating. And if it becomes apparent that the athlete didn’t cheat, then his personal life is fair game. The young Olympic gymnasts had to endure all kinds of personal invective: Her hair wasn’t right, too pouty, not humble. For crying out loud, these girls are teenagers, they’re allowed to be pouty, proud and less than perfect.

Another game we played in first grade was Farmer in the Dell. Everyone probably remembers the song and the game. The last one was the mouse takes the cheese, then the cheese stands alone. Hi ho the derry o, the cheese stands alone.

That seems to be where we leave our hero athletes these days.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.

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