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Losing as a learning experience

The names of Obadele Thompson, Ryan Brathwaite, Shane Brathwaite, Anton Norris, and a number of others, are forever etched on the pages of Barbados’ sporting history. With varying degrees of motivation, many of our loyal sons and daughters of the soil have left these shores and travelled the globe to showcase their sporting prowess, often against great odds.

They have excelled, and flopped, based on the assistance, or lack thereof, of the private and public sector. They have also risen to victory or slumped to defeat, based on their own commitment, tenacity and willingness to push their bodies and minds to the limit in pursuit of their goals.

The Olympic Games are the greatest sporting arena, with the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games also providing the stage for our young men and women to bring joy to the country and to encourage the focus of world attention on these 166 square miles. But there is a worrying trend in Barbados that has yet to be addressed; and perhaps the time has come for our sports administrators to raise the bar in the pursuit of sporting excellence.

Sixty-one athletes recently returned from the Commonwealth Games, with Shane Brathwaite’s bronze medal the only measure of success to show for this expensive visit to Glasgow, Scotland. In any language, and by any reasonable deduction, the trip to the Games could only be deemed a disappointment. But deputy manager of the team, Gail Craigg-Archer, described the Glasgow excursion thus: “I think the team did remarkably well, despite all things considered.”

The judo team did not win any of their matches; but they did not curl up and die. They put up a fight, and actually in one of their matches against New Zealand they were the crowd favourites, and they had the stadium of 30,000 plus chanting “Barbados, Barbados” throughout the entire game –– which was good, and it made the guys feel good that they were away from home; yet still had the entire backing of a Scottish stadium behind them.

And therein rests much of the problem in Barbados’ sports. We have to develop a culture of wanting to win; not merely to compete. Excellence must be tied into being on the podium; not merely putting in a good effort and acknowledging cheers dedicated to losers. Too often we hear our athletes and administrators speak about international events providing a great learning experience. We suggest that that is the language of contented losers.

Events such as the Olympic Games, World Championships and Commonwealth Games are not arenas for “learning experience”. These are the venues to win medals and to excel. We expect our athletes to receive their learning experiences at domestic meets, CARIFTA, inter-island meets, and others of that ilk.

We cannot be taking to compete at meets, sprinters whose times are still in the CARIFTA zone. On this last trip we took a female athlete who has failed miserably at every major outing at which she has participated over the past eight or so years. Subsequent comments related to this example of serial failure have never been too far from “a learning experience”. If our competitors, be their table tennis players, swimmers or badminton players, struggle at the regional level or produce times way off the average times of international standards, the place for them is not in far-flung arenas soaking up applause for being smiling losers.

We acknowledge that more must be done for our athletes. But it would be unkind to suggest that the private and public sector are doing nothing. A number of our athletes are receiving scholarships to universities where they are being exposed to high quality training. Several companies in the island have been sponsoring a number of disciplines, though more could be done. But it is the culture most of all that must change. We must stop being satisfied with “trying”, and softening failure with satisfaction of enjoying that “learning experience”.

The Jamaica social story cannot be that far removed from Barbados’. But the departure seems to be the culture of abhorring losing. There is nothing “remarkably well” about failure. Our cricketers have long set the benchmark for winning and international greatness.

Perhaps the National Sports Council, Barbados Olympic Association, and all those entities responsible for our various sporting disciplines can start refashioning the minds of our athletes in equal measure to the work done on their physical.  Losers are mostly liked, and cheered, by winners.

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