Inspiration from the Spire | It’s good to win … and to lose

I don’t know about you, but I was clutching a cushion over my face as the Italy vs England penalty shootout fired off in Kiev on Sunday night.

Sport is a cruel business. There are winners and losers, and nothing in between. My daughter Sarah used to be in the Great Britain under-20s sabre fencing team. It’s a skillful but fierce sport, especially when facing beefy Hungarians at the other end of the piste.

Twice a week she would leave school early to train at the Millfield Fencing Academy in Somerset, and on a too-regular basis letters would arrive on my doormat saying: “Congratulations, your daughter has been selected to represent GB … please send a cheque for £XXX for her trip next week to Koln/Budapest/Rome/Paris/Pisa.” 

Some of the GB fencing team selected for next month’s London Olympics are close friends and fierce rivals of Sarah. She used to beat one of those selected on a regular basis, before herself retiring a few years ago due to illness. Sarah’s sporting career representing her country at a top level was over, but so was the regular jaunt of travelling to faraway places, sitting in a sports hall (they all look the same), and either winning or losing (sometimes in just five minutes) thankfully also over. The intensity of competitive sport was adrenalin-inducing and fun, but also a huge drain on our resources of money and time. To be honest, it took over our lives as a family.

This all makes me appreciate the huge determination and sacrifice made by our young sportsmen and women, and indeed their parents. I served as a part of the chaplaincy team at the Manchester Commonwealth Games and met athletes from every corner of the world.  Sport brings people together from every background, rich and poor, black and white, north and south, east and west. What I have learnt from being a sports’ parent and a sports’ chaplain is that learning to lose well is as important as coping with winning. But it is good to win, as the whole of Italy can appreciate this week. 

My friend Steph Cook won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics for GB in the modern pentathlon. When she went to Sydney she was unknown. When she returned she was a national heroine. She was a qualified doctor and surgeon before the Olympics. On winning gold, she was asked by a journalist: “What does it feel like to now be able to give up medicine and become a sports star?” Steph replied: “No, I am giving up sport and returning to medicine.” I liked that. Sport is important, but learning to lose and win well is more important.