I’m sure many of us have done at least one thing in our lives that took a substantial amount of time and effort: completing a degree; moving house; or passing your driving test. And when it’s done, we can relax, look back on our achievement and think, “Glad that’s over. Don’t fancy going through that again.”
But imagine that being your whole life. Daunting challenges being the norm, rather than the exception. And not only do you accept this as your state of being; you actively embrace it.
Can you relate? No, me neither. But elite athletes can, not least the ones currently competing in Rio. And in that exclusive sphere of athletes is an even more exclusive group; sportspeople for whom once wasn’t enough. They’ve already reached the pinnacle of their sport, and have come back for more. Why climb Everest? Because it’s there. Already climbed Everest? Climb it again.
Before the Paralympics began, David Weir went to Brazil to win five gold medals (he already had six), Sarah Storey made a bid for four (she had eleven), while Tatyana McFadden was chasing seven golds (in addition to the three she already has). And when athletes of this calibre go for medals, they’re only ever going for gold. Last night, we saw another member of this gilded club, Hannah Cockcroft, marmalise her opposition to win the T34 400 metres.
One way ableism manifests in sport on a micro level is when talk of Britain’s greatest active athlete is discussed (as it will the closer we get to the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist), you can be certain that Andy Murray, Mo Farah, and Laura Trott will be given prominence. Yet no – or at least, lesser – mention of Cockcroft, Storey, or Kadeena Cox.
In fairness, I suspect this isn’t specific to the UK. In a nation that has the All Blacks, I imagine New Zealand swimmer Sophie Pascoe (6 Paralympic golds) doesn’t get the full plaudits her achievements deserve, and while I hope to be proven wrong, I can’t imagine McFadden will be a central feature at the next ESPY Awards.
Yet these athletes all possess a quality that aligns with the words of former Manchester United coach, Archie Knox, who had a phrase he liked to use before big matches: “The real ball’s coming out today” – referring to the time when the best are incited into producing their best. That’s why they’re the best.
You could see this in Cockcroft’s dominant display. The only race she’s lost in seven years was at this distance to Kare Adenegan, but by the halfway mark, Cockcroft had blitzed past Adenegan, as well as the rest of her opposition. The only competitor she had left was the clock. She beat that, too, breaking the world record.
One of the characteristics of greatness – especially sustained greatness – is making the arduous appear routine. Just because Cockcroft makes it look easy to win by ten metres doesn’t mean that it is. Watching her is also a clear demonstration that some of the skills needed to succeed in the Paralympics aren’t always the same as the ones required in the Olympics. Where able-bodied track athletes (and some para-track athletes) use their upper-bodies for stability, wheelchair racers also use it as their engine.
Is there a more tiresome cliche in sport than the one which asserts that the winner will always be the one who wants it more? Not only is it trite, it’s also incorrect. What this maxim fails to acknowledge is that the key factor isn’t desire, but control.
The aim for every elite athlete is control. They’re not only trying to obtain absolute control over their own body, but they’re also trying to control the bodies of their rivals. Exerting dominance to such an extent that their opponents efforts are rendered impotent.
There’s one final personality trait discernible in these competitors. It’s one we probably don’t want to countenance (it’s probable they don’t want to, either), but it would be disingenuous to ignore it.
Remember that famous Michael Douglas monologue from Wall Street? “Greed, for want of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
Professional greed isn’t only a quality present in those deemed as unlikeable, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, or Bill Belichick. You know who else is greedy? Serena Williams; Usain Bolt; Michael Phelps, and yes, some of those Paralympians we’ve been lionising – they’re greedy, too.
There’s no spirit of collectivism here, and their approach to trophies and medals is akin to Joey Tribbiani’s approach to food.
And be honest, where your favourites are concerned, you wouldn’t have it any other way. When Serena got that record equalling 22nd Grand Slam, did you think she’s had more than enough of those, or did you rejoice along with most of Black Twitter?
The paradox of this greed is that it sets the athlete on a quest for repeated success without ever being fully satiated. That much was clear in Cockcroft’s post-race comments: “…no offence to Kare Adenegan,” she said, “but my drive is that I didn’t want a 15-year-old to beat me.” Adenegan may be the sport’s next big star, but Cockcroft has no intention of passing the proverbial torch to her. She has no intention of passing the torch to anyone.
Sometimes sport is a direct allegory for humanity’s greatest virtues; a metaphorical instruction manual for life. Until it isn’t. Professional sport is a rare area of existence where if you want to be great, greed isn’t only good. It’s essential.
 – I know I did.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.