IInstead of more medals, more compassion. Instead of amazing superheroes, brilliant human beings. Instead of a chest-pounding accompaniment to the “greatest ever” chant, mere expressions of pure joy. What a fascinating year for the sport, where what happens on the pitch is now much more connected to what happens off it. And what incredible leadership from sportspeople around the world who have broken through the traditional boundaries of the sports world to show us a better way to think, behave and connect.
At the Euros, Gareth Southgate demonstrated that compassion and caring play a central role in high performance, on and off the pitch. He stressed the importance of ensuring players feel a sense of belonging to the England team as a prerequisite for delivering their best performance on the pitch, operating at a deeper level than just training team building and match tactics. He invested as much in those who sat on the bench, those who shared the touchline with him and those who supported the team behind the scenes as in those who stepped onto the pitch. And he had no problem reaching out and comforting opponents he felt an instinctive empathy and connection to.
The recognition of Simone Biles as Athlete of the Year by Time magazine and recipient of the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award in a year when she has won fewer medals than ever before in her career signals a significant change. Are we finally seeing beyond the superficial, short-term glow of those round, inanimate metal objects and realizing that lasting success might look very different, with greater impact and lasting value well within beyond any metal disk?
Biles’ courage to step back into the global spotlight in Tokyo and put his own mental and physical health first sent shockwaves through the traditional ‘win at all costs’ sports world. In perhaps her fastest and most agile moves, she undermined our macho narratives rooted around pain, sacrifice and the drive to be the best at all costs and exposed them for what they are. – invented narratives that diminish rather than enhance performance, controlling mantras that constrain rather than inspire athletes.
Biles has emboldened those looking to reset the old heroic language that persists at the grassroots and elite sport levels. There’s a lot to do to keep breaking it down. Eddie Jordan’s oft-quoted but nonsensical comments that Lewis Hamilton lost the final race of the F1 season because he had become ‘too sporty and too nice’ showed how easy it is to perpetuate this superficial approach .
If you stop to think for a second about his comment, you realize the inherent contradictions and lack of meaning: is he suggesting that Hamilton was ‘mean’ during the seven years he won his league titles? Did he get nice all season, or was it just on the last lap of the last race of the season? It would be nice if we could all stop for a moment and think before repeating this kind of nonsense. Hamilton’s integrity in an incredibly difficult and controversial situation is to be praised – it is there, not on the podium, that he offers the most powerful lessons.
In other sports, we found other examples of athletes who helped break these old heroic myths. Ben Stokes and Naomi Osaka have stepped up to show they are ready to use their platforms to steer the sport in a different direction (and to deal with the inevitable social media beating that comes with such bold and new thinking).
Their actions have also served to highlight the severe lack of leadership of managers and directors of sports organizations. I hope these Designated Leaders will take the time to reflect on the potential of sport to drive positive social change, influence attitudes and inspire young people to do more than become “heroes” and make strides to catch up with these brilliant athletes.
The maturity of the next generation of athletes is as breathtaking as their performances. The shameless joy Sky Brown and Emma Raducanu take in their sport whatever their results resets the foundations in a way desperately needed by a sports world that has plunged into a crisis of credibility, whether through shocking doping, repugnant corruption or simply the latest series of “win at all costs” incidents.
There is a striking humanity through the sport that this new generation of role models is opening up: their language is different, the humility shines through, no more chanting “I’m the best”, no more talking about “crush the opponents” and to “destroy the opposition”.
Sport has always offered us a way to see human possibilities play out in the context of multiple challenges and opportunities, hopes and fears, chance and risk, skill and courage. It is a world we all relate to as we too seek to explore what is possible in our own lives.
In one of the toughest years in memory, it’s refreshing to see sports men and women offer us new thinking, a new approach and a better way to succeed that could serve us well on and off the field. in the years to come.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic rower, former diplomat and author of The Long Win. She is an advisor for The True Athlete Project and chair of Love Rowing, GB Rowing’s charitable foundation.