GAME ON!         

Goolbai Gunasekara wonders if sport is sporting anymore

The British taught us to behave graciously if we lost at anything competitive. We were supposed to be good sports in the face of adversity. We shook hands with our opponents, smiled politely and sometimes shared refreshments (especially after those Westrop Shield netball matches) when we met the same schools year after year in Colombo.

We didn’t find it hard to lose although we preferred to win. Colombo schools were pretty evenly balanced and often, the same girls played in the team for a few years. Boys from other schools came to watch and they behaved impeccably. Not that they had much choice with teachers breathing down their necks… but it was a different scenario then.

The change in attitudes came unexpectedly. The Westrop Shield was supposed to be given to the winning team from the Western Province. Until then only Colombo and a few suburban schools had bothered to enter. Suddenly, we were told one year that Ibbagamuwa Central School had entered the list. I hesitate to call it ‘the fray’ because there was no such word in our rather old-fashioned sports vocabulary.

And in a day, attitudes changed forever.

The Ibbagamuwa girls played to win. There was no polite fraternising. They leapt about the court, literally over our heads. Their subsequent victory was a total rout of all the Colombo schools that went down like ninepins to a far superior game played by an outstation school.

Graciously losing was no longer an option. It was war – albeit a fairly courteous one.

The following year, the Colombo schools tried again; this time much harder and in a far less friendly spirit. But their efforts were in vain. Ibbagamuwa won again… and quite easily too. Had they won the Westrop Shield for a third time, they’d have been allowed to keep the trophy and a new one would have to be found.

Never had the Colombo schools practised so hard. Cynthia Rasquinho, the premier sports mistress of that time, spent hours working out strategy with the teams she coached. And all this agonising, practice and pride paid off. Vainly did our British principals of the time tell us that the game was all that mattered – we didn’t believe them!

It was victory at all costs. Ibbagamuwa Central was defeated that third year by St. Bridget’s in a close final.

But the game was never the same again. Attitudes of competitiveness and rivalry continued to increase in every sport. And this has now invaded the spirit of athletic meets of both sexes, which heretofore had been pleasantly energetic affairs and not killer occasions.

Cricket, rugger and other boys’ sports began to take on more sinister aspects. It wasn’t too long before knives were being carried to cricket matches and school principals started to realise that sports were no longer sports. They were battles.

Is this what we now have to teach our children? That winning is all that matters?

Gracious losing is not on the cards. Long after the matches are over, boys continue to fight (verbally and physically) outside the sports arena. A new era has arrived and our children are no longer heirs to sport played for the sake of sport.

In every sport, cheating is rampant. Referees often have favourites and challenging the ref is considered as being extremely disrespectful. In any case, it is difficult to prove a biased call.

The corruption scandals that have plagued Sri Lanka Cricket are a national disgrace. Less nationally popular sports follow suit.

I recall that in swimming, in which I had a personal interest, there was a great deal of unethical behaviour on the part of the selectors. Depending on the importance of the event, the selectors were often offered bribes. I can’t say that all selectors were open to this corruption but there’s no doubt that decisions made to send swimmers abroad (especially to the Olympic Games) were open to contentious debate.

In the world of cricket, illustrious players like Sidath Wettimuny and Kumar Sangakkara have refused to join Sri Lanka Cricket, and the results are plain to see. Our cricket team has suffered because of corruption at the highest levels – and this is a great pity since we once had some of the best players in the world.

Are we teaching our children to play sport for the right reasons? To my generation, winning wasn’t the only factor. It included good health, exercise, team spirit, physical coordination, friendship and honour. Those were the reasons we encouraged sport decades ago but these ideals no longer hold true. World sport has declined likewise and politics has started to play a rather ignoble part in it.

The Greek ideal of a perfect body is no longer important. Men and women are making fortunes out of sports. Sport today is a far cry from the Olympics of old where the only reward was a wreath of olive leaves and blameless reputation.