The Pursuit of Excellence

We are in the middle of the high summer of sport. Over the last month out of Tokyo have come reports and pictures of athletes of all shapes, size and abilities competing to find the best on the day. It is important to those taking part. You only have to witness the immediate disappointment on the face of the one who wins the silver medal. Of course, very soon after, even that competitor realises they have achieved something noteworthy – something of excellence – and the pride returns.

It’s not just at the Olympics that those who come out on top are feted. In the last couple of days I’ve watched men dressed in white settling a battle that took 4 out of the 5 allocated days to settle. Along the way those gathered to watch cheered every small success – like a ball struck into the stands for 6 runs, like 100 balls faced without scoring a run (not at this match!) and the clattering of wickets struck by the high speed ball. It didn’t matter that their side might not be winning. It showed that there were trying in an excellent way.

But yesterday I also got an insight into what is more important. I caught up with the crash that happened at Spa Francorchamps when those who were competing for qualifying positions in the latest W Series race. To say it was horrific is an understatement – you only have to listen carefully to the reaction on those actually at the crash point on some of the footage to tell how shocking it was. However, I only got to see the footage because no one was seriously hurt.

No one was seriously hurt.

That showed me something that is more important than all the fastest qualifying laps. Listening to an interview of one of that sport’s administrators that was her first reaction as well: “Is everyone alright?” Having been reassured this was the case only then did her thoughts turn to write off costs and insurance claims. But that, with this background of the celebration of excellence, made me think.

The other images that have dominated our airwaves this week has been the withdrawal from Afghanistan. While I’m sure everyone has done everything in their power to extract as many vulnerable or a risk people from that turbulent region – which, it itself, is a celebration of excellence – it has been admitted that some have been left behind and at risk. Their situation now means that they have to find a way to survive.

While this is a particularly unique situation we need to remember that people are at risk every day – specifically in countries like that but actually everywhere. The on-going pandemic has brought home even to sophisticated and developed countries just how much we all live on an knife edge most of the time. Those who have access to monetary credit tend to live on it hoping the debt will not destroy them while at the other end of the scale others, surviving on hand outs from the richer parts of the world, wonder what they must do to improve their lives. Or simply when is the unnecessary conflict going to end or the rains come again.

There is a poem by Edwin Brock about Five Ways to Kill a Man. The last verse and fifth of those ways is “Simpler, direct and much more neat … is to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.” I suppose that this was written against the threat of the end of everything with the threat of nuclear war. But we all survived that and find ourselves living at the start of the twenty first century where the threat to all life is now rising temperatures and climate change.

I offer this to complement this pursuit of excellence that seems so important.

For many, and in my own small, desperate way, simple survival is far more important.

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