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Notes for a Manifesto: Sports

2018-10-11 00:00:08
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Those who encourage children to take up a sport often speak about the virtues. Sports build character. Sports teach many things, we have all heard: courage, teamwork, determination and the ability to be gracious in defeat and humble in victory, fairness, integrity, responsibility and respect. Not all of these can be taught or learned in a classroom, obviously. 

Now almost all children engage in sports and games, either in a formal, structured setting (in a school or club) or informally (in the back garden, village commons, paddy fields, reservoirs or shrub jungle). The question is, if playing with and against others is such an important part of growing up, how is it that the associated values have not got ingrained into the worldview and practice of the collective? Indeed, how is it that the opposite attributes (timidity, crass individualism, sloth, arrogance, bitterness, unfairness, deceit, irresponsibility and disrespect seem to have triumphed at every turn in every sector? 

Getting these things right alone won’t sort out the issues at the macro level, obviously. However, when sports is such an integral part of school life, and when sport can do so much, we need to ask why the yield is so meager. 

We need to recognize, though, that the word ‘sports’ is for the most part about honing talent, improving skills and winning. Apart from M.J.M. Lafir winning the World Amateur Billiards title in 1973, Nishantha Fernando winning the world title in carrom in 2012, Sri Lanka winning 5 world championships in carrom, the Cricket World Cup in 1996, the T-20 title in 2014 and a couple of Olympic medals, we haven’t really produced world beaters on a consistent basis. 

Efstratios Grivas, Chess Grandmaster and one of the most respected authorities on coaching chess, a coach himself who helped Sri Lanka win a category gold medal at the 41st Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway in 2014, has an interesting take on ‘talent’. The following Facebook post contains a lot of lessons, and not just for chess. 

Principles of good governance such as transparency and accountability are severely compromised. People with competence and integrity keep away or are hoofed out

‘In 1984, just before the Thessaloniki Olympiad, a match between Greece and China was played in the Greek town of Kavala. Both countries were considered weak at those times, without any GM in their line-ups. The Scheveningen format match was played only in men boards, as the Chinese didn’t line-up a women’s team. Greece won by 19½ to 16½ and both teams performed nicely in the Olympiad: China was 12th and Greece 31st. In the coming years China became a super power and especially in women where a lot of World Champions were ‘produced’. Finally, in the last Olympiad China hit a duo, winning both sections, crowning the development program which started in the early 80s. What we can learn from these facts is that ‘Geniuses are made - not born’ and as I have repeatedly written, ‘Talent is the excuse of the failed’. Do not let yourself carried away by ‘destiny’ - try to have quality work with an expert and you will reap success.

That’s for the sportsmen and sportswomen. It’s not just about them working hard, though. About 15 years ago local rugby legend Chandrashan Perera related an interesting story about the skills of Sri Lankan children. Apparently some sports outfit in Australia had done a worldwide study on hand-eye coordination. It was found, he said, that it was Sri Lanka children (up to the age of 15) who had the best hand-eye coordination in the world. That’s it. Only until 15. He opined that identification of the truly gifted, picking the right discipline for the particular child and systematic training are lacking. Naturally, our children don’t do too well at international events after a certain age. 

Systems. That’s key. The issue is not that we don’t have systems, but they are either riddled with holes or are peopled with corrupt or incompetent or both. Most sports bodies are plagued with controversy with allegations of financial mismanagement as well as tinkering with the selection process and effectively sidelining and demoralizing the most deserving. 

The principles of good governance such as transparency and accountability are severely compromised. People with competence and integrity keep away or are hoofed out of organizations. Sports bodies, from the National Olympic Committee to the apex and regional organizations are veritable fiefdoms. Elections are stage-managed. There’s give and take. Much of it passes under the radar of those concerned, i.e. if they are actually interested in observing what happens. 

Money is part of the problem of course; there are perks involved and there are ample income-earning opportunities for those who are corrupt. Oversight, then, is lacking. A culture of corruption has outlawed all that is good, decent and civilized in sports. It is even apparent in the junior levels in the schools. Much of it has little to do with the particular sport, per se. 

In schools, for example, there’s a certificate mania. Parents are more interested in their children obtaining certificates than learning basic skills. Certificates are valuable. They can help children make a case for being appointed as prefects. Those who dish out such titles don’t seem to be interested or have the ability to identify and reward the much vaunted virtues of engaging in sports in the first place. Selections are rackets. There is favouritism. Coaches offer private ‘classes’ and this forces parents to pocket out more bucks because they are naturally persuaded to think that their children could get the short end of the stick if the coach were to be displeased. 

Children naturally pick up on all this. Rules can and will be bent, they learn. It’s sanctioned by one and all. It’s part of the story. Conflicts of interest abound. Administrators, referees, umpires and arbiters, coaches, parents and players have tainted themselves. Money talks. Power talks. Even those who are really good at what they do, come to believe that performance alone won’t help. And so it grows. 

Too often, we put all this down to the fact that we are not a rich country. Then again, there are countries who manage sport much better than we do, even though they are not exactly rolling in gold. It’s all about doing the best we can with the resource complement we are endowed with. 

Systems. Personnel. Processes that ensure that the right people occupy the right positions. Sri Lanka’s sports sector urgently requires systems, personnel and processes that privilege a commitment to fundamentals, discipline and hard work even as they together operate as a bulwark against corruption and incompetence. We may not taste victory immediately, but if we get the fundamentals right, we would be giving it our best shot. Right now, sports is business and a useful tool in furthering other interests unrelated to the sport. This must change. 

Over to you, Messers Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and any other individual entertaining hopes of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a political analyst and freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com . www.malindwords.blogspot.com


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