The winning streak;Friday's child;Parting shots

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on sport's agony and ecstasy.

Early morning and time for Ellen to have a swim. She changes into uniform and cycles off to school. At lunch-break she has netball practice and, after school, hockey. Summer evenings and weekends she plays tennis at a club; this term she has taken up fencing. Once a week, she goes to the gym, which, because of the danger of exercise with weights distorting growing bones, she has only recently been able to join. She is 16 and her goal is to get six As in her GCSEs and develop her abs, pecs and delts.

One evening, Ellen comes back from her tennis match depressed. She lost. "She was cheating," she wails. "It was match-point, 6-2 in the second set and she called my shot out and then her mum came and she played so much better. Oh, it's not fair!" Ellen chews over the match, its low points, her sneaky opponent. She tries to find reasons for her defeat, conceding, "I'm rubbish". The suggestion that games involve defeat, that she may learn new tactics, that there will be other players better than her, she does not accept. There are tears. It hurts to lose.

The next day, Ellen plays again. She returns, swinging her racquet, face flushed. "6-4, 6-2," she remarks casually, then yells, "To ME! YES!" She tells her family that yesterday's victor was "the best in the group, so itwasn't too bad to lose to her - even though she is much younger". It still hurts to lose.

Not for nothing did the Greeks call sport the "agon" - the struggle. More than skill, more than fun, sport is about the will to win.

Nowadays we can all talk about endorphins, those pain-killers in the brain that are released with exercise and how people get "addicted" to the endorphin rush. Shining eyes, glowing faces, messing about in the showers: you can smell more than sweat in the post-match locker-room euphoria. But kids like Ellen are hooked on something more complicated. It's not the way she looks - long limbs, muscle tone, easy movement. It's not the demanding intimacy of team sports - "Come on, pass, pass, PASS". It's not even the structure and meaning that her busy schedule infuses into her life that keeps Ellen sports mad. It's winning, being a winner.

Some races, despite the words of Ecclesiastes, are to the swift. They are the ones run over a timed distance and clocked by umpires. They are the ones - unlike the complex, up-and-down business of living life, relationships, gardening - that can be won. Later on, Ellen may be able to cope with "you win some, you lose some". Right now, she just wants to win. And win. And win. Just like everyone else she plays.

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