Noble Purpose

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The Olympics bring out my mixed feelings about competition. Winning at all costs, grinding someone else in the dust, the distortion of personality that comes with going ‘all out’. Sometimes, in my sporting past, I’ve avoided finishing people off. Sometimes I’ve played hard and unfair.

Doing it the right way matters. And way beyond sport. I was talking to someone about US politics – and indeed UK politics – where what starts as the ‘noble purpose’ of ‘public service’ finishes in the gutter of ‘attack ads’ and ‘sliming’ your opponent. Campaign managers and political advisers inexorably steer toward the end justifying absolutely all means.

Chinese badminton players have been vilified this week for serving into the net to avoid winning. One of my work friends was there in the Olympic hall. And he told me about the crowd’s initial confusion, then realisation, then real anger as boos rang out. Sport betrayed.

But we are inconsistent. Soccer players defend in numbers to kill a game. Blocking an end – and not offering a shot – can be among cricket’s finest achievements. Where are the boundaries of ‘fair’ play? Or is all fair in love, sport and war?

I was talking to someone at work about us doing things the ‘right’ way. She said ‘Isn’t it simply about quality?’ That helped me get it clear in my head – the answer is no. You can easily do something very effective, of very high quality – but very wrong.

I think the answer is the ‘noble purpose’ test – advancing the objective without defeating the object. History doesn’t always record good runners up, but it rarely forgives ‘bad winners’. The killer instinct is fine, so long as the ‘noble purpose’ lives on.

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