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Jessica Ennis: Olympic champion

Is Willpower Enough To Win
There are risks in suggesting that success in our chosen field is merely a function of wanting it more than the next person. Once we accept this philosophy, it can lead to some ugly positions.

It was difficult, if a little cruel, not to smile at the complaint made that retail spending did not expand during London 2012. Yes, that’s right, we were meant to see the stunning achievements of Mo Farrar and Jess Ennis for what they were: an inspiration to go out and spend more on the high street; the logical demonstration of our patriotism being to buy more stuff. The Olympians had something different to say about their successes. There was a genuine sense of modesty about their achievements and grace in victory which adorned their gold medals.

Sports interviews are rarely illuminating because they are usually conducted so close to the heat of battle that cool reflection is not obtained. There is also a gratuitous tendency to build into the question the answer that is expected (‘the noise of the crowd lifted you on the final stretch, didn’t it?), ensuring little illumination would follow. One recurring theme is worth consideration: the suggestion that willpower was the key factor in success. Successful Olympians clearly demonstrate a rare and intimidating determination. The cyclist Victoria Pendleton was desperate to leave behind a fitness regime which deprived her of the routine joys of life, which is understandable when you learn that her colleague Chris Hoy would train until he was physically sick. For those of us who curse our misfortune when we realise the TV remote is not within reaching distance of our slumped position on the sofa, such commitment is scary and unnatural. But is it all a question of willpower, as we heard several athletes imply? By definition, not everyone can become an Olympic champion or the best in their chosen field in life, so is personal determination an honest account of the difference between perceived success and failure?

All who achieve their goals in life are dependent on a range of circumstances which, initially, are entirely beyond their control. The first of these is the gifting which comes from God and makes us each unique. Few people seriously think that if they trained hard enough they would run faster than Usain Bolt; even fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake, who is almost as gifted as Bolt yet trains harder, was unable to do this in London. There is a natural gifting in Olympians which many others cannot aspire to. There may be some who could, but their upbringing conspires to prevent it. The number of privately educated athletes in Team GB suggests the importance of resources in developing their skills, especially in sports which require costly equipment. All British athletes had access to generous outside funding, notably through the Lottery; economic clout is usually a predicate of national sporting success. The central planning that went into Team GB’s resounding success is another feature, sitting uneasily within a prevailing ideology which disdains centralisation. Finally, athletes were supported by families which made sacrifices every bit as great to ensure their husband, wife, son or daughter could compete with the best; Mo Farrar, for instance, spent volumes of time away from his family which in another context might come in for some criticism.

Personal determination, in other words, is only part of the story. The risk in today’s culture is of a common story being spun which implies all success (and by corollary, all failure) is a matter of personal will. This is witnessed by the mantra: ‘he wanted it more than the others’, which is highly unlikely when you pause to think about it. Once we accept this philosophy, it can be used to justify some ugly positions, especially towards the weak and vulnerable. The breathtaking achievements of the Paralympians could be used by those who ascribe their success largely to willpower to probe intrusively into the inability of other people with disabilities to rise above their circumstances. A rounded view of how and why people wind up where they are is imperative if we are properly to ‘do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with our God’ as the prophet Micah exhorts (6:8)

St. Paul encouraged the early Christians with sporting metaphors: ‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one (1 Corinthians 9: 24-25). We may be inspired by the uncommon willpower of others to new levels of discipleship. Yet we do not run this race alone, nor cross the finishing line by ourselves. A similar range of benevolent circumstances, most notably the wisdom, kindness and prayerfulness of friends and strangers, contribute to our race – and us to theirs. On such bases is the humility worthy of an Olympian obtained: ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us’ (Hebrews 12:1).

 

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