The World Keeps Turning: Savoring the spirit of competition

Allen Woods

Allen Woods FILE PHOTO


Published: 03-01-2024 7:01 PM

The familiar words bring vivid memories of the 1960s video clips that opened ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”: “The thrill of victory” (a victorious boxer carried overhead by a jubilant crowd) “and the agony of defeat” (a ski jumper stumbles before launching from the ramp and falls off the end in a disastrous tangle of skis, helmet, arms and legs). More images illustrated “the human drama of athletic competition.”

We are a country and world obsessed with sports, from soccer’s World Cup to the NBA Finals, from the international spectacle of the Olympics to golf’s increasingly raucous Ryder Cup. Pro athletes are paid obscene amounts: Soccer’s Ronaldo took in about $136 million in 2018, with 35 others eclipsing $50 million. University football and/or basketball coaches (including Massachusetts’) are often a state’s highest paid employees, while legislatures look to cut other education funding.

What is it about our vicarious “thrills” and “agonies” in pro sports, and on a local, amateur level, that is so precious that parents attack youth-league referees, fans threaten and injure underperforming athletes, and friends create divisions that are hard to bridge? The greatest pro football coach before Bill Belichick, Vince Lombardi, often quoted earlier coaches: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

When describing star athletes (both men and women), friends often suggest that it isn’t so much the thrill of victory that drives them as the agony of defeat: many simply “can’t stand losing.” It is so unpleasant that even in harmless entertainments, like cards, ping pong or tiddlywinks (now there’s a game left in the dustbin of history), they would demand to keep playing until they could claim a win, or cheat, or change the rules to win.

For years, family members have rightly accused me of being overly competitive. One example was my reluctance to play poorly so a child could win a game. I “mansplained” that it would be more satisfying when they actually beat me, something I live with now that my adult son beats me repeatedly.

My wife and I once jokingly (sort of) decided to liven up a feel-good grandparents’ day in a school science class by unilaterally and privately deciding that it was a competitive race to find the answers to questions posed around the room. We came home jokingly (sort of) bragging that our team of grandparents and grandson crushed the others there.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed competitions in all types of sports (baseball, football, wrestling, basketball, golf, volleyball, soccer, pickleball), cards (hearts, bridge), and board games (Monopoly, Scrabble), the limits of the competitive instinct came home last fall as I strolled the golf course under a pristine blue sky and brilliant low sun, surrounded by the lush green grass created from the summer’s deluge. It was a day and moment to savor.

As an old man, I’ve tried to train myself to appreciate the moment, since I see few enticing accomplishments when looking ahead. That day, I asked myself, “Would I feel just as good if I was here by myself or playing golf for fun with friends, rather than competing?”

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I had to admit, right then, the answer was “no.” The added competition increased my enjoyment, a bit of pleasant adrenaline on top of the more mellow strains of “feel good” chemicals (according to scientists) like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.

I believe the rewards and penalties of amateur competition can be boiled down to a simple statement: “Today, I’m better (or worse) than you.” I don’t know why the “better” and “worse” are so important to me and many, many others, but learning how to compete — winning some, losing some — is a task that can reinforce your rightful place in the world.

Except for a GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), there are always some that are better than us, and some worse, using any type of yardstick we choose. It wasn’t Lombardi, but journalist Grantland Rice who stated the more important value in 1908: it's “not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." Modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin stressed the same: “The important thing ... is not so much to win as to take part."

I enjoy taking part, even when I lose, although it may take a few minutes, hours, or days to realize it. Now, if I can only enjoy an autumn day of leisurely golf or a grandparents’ day without an imaginary contest, I’ll believe I’ve moved a tiny step up the evolutionary scale.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at