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Going for universal gold

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by Jesmond Saliba

The world looked a different place when sports events were suddenly banned at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ironically, though, the fight against the virus became a global sporting competition in its own right. 

Laboratories and pharmaceutical companies were dropped into a race to develop vaccines, countries challenged for the top spot in the active case rankings, communities applauded and cheered medical professionals on in their attempt to beat back infections. 

Sporting contests are so ingrained into civilisations that the return of legendary competitions this year such as the Six Nations, America’s Cup, the French Open, the Copa America and the UEFA Euro, finally brought a sense of normalcy to fans and indifferent people alike. It is now persuasive to argue that sports competitions, whatever the discipline, are a social need. 

No tournament or championship is like another, and contrasts emerge even between one edition of a competition and the next. But certain typologies encompass all contests and disciplines from Formula 1 racing to hammer throw and from fencing to synchronised swimming. There are the winners and the losers, the David-versus- Goliath moments, the lucky escapes and the emphatic results. 

If sporting events capture the collective imagination and engage individuals who do not necessarily follow the games, it is because sport reflects the deeper drivers that shape human narratives. Success relies on a combination of individual ability, dependable teamwork, and favourable conditions. Every sports contest is an expedition towards that perfect balance and no sooner has a competition come to its end that athletes begin rebuilding and preparing for the upcoming one.

Competitions are a living metaphor of social life, recreating the basic conditions that stimulate self-development and interdependence, fairness and respect, struggle and endurance. Unlike everyday life, in sports, there is only one winner and challenges come one at a time. But the fundamental model of competitions frames the human state as a set of challenges – at times in the form of other persons – that can only be overcome through collaboration and combined effort. 

Beyond the satisfaction of winning and the emotional roller-coasters, sport reveals secrets about the character of society. By working together we can find solutions to bigger questions, by following the rules we can broaden opportunities for more people, by pursuing excellence we can discover more meaning. 

The paradoxical goal of sports is to ultimately make us all winners. 

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