By David

I was invited to dinner last night at the prestigious Palm Beach Sailfish Club. My host is a member of our master’s team. The Club was formed in 1914 and today provides the best buffet dinner I’ve ever seen. Lobster tails, scallops, oysters, green bean casserole, roast beef, baked duck, sushi, pork, mama’s apple pie, shot glass deserts, a cheese board to die for, crabs, fresh fruit, prawns and buckets of Russian caviar; it’s all there. They also serve the best vodka martini in a country noted for serving good vodka martinis. I spent the evening happily picking away at several lobster tails sprinkled with the Russian caviar.

On our way to dinner my host was explaining the social significance of The Palm Beach Daily News. Evidently this unashamedly society rag has little literary merit and is known locally as the Shiny Sheet. I’m told that members of the Palm Beach “would be if they could be” clique actually hire PR consultants to get their photograph into its pages. Anyone who manages to get their image into the Shiny Sheet on five or more occasions is known as a swan. My host is a swan, a status achieved, I was assured, without the aid of a PR consultant. Some of us just have it and others have to pay for it – or so it seems.

Evidentially one well known Palm Beach swan, renowned for her expensive PR advisors, has fallen upon hard times. During her description of this parvenu my host used the term “schadenfreude”. I had never heard of the word. So, when I arrived home, I looked it up. Here, with thanks to Wikipedia, is what I found.

“Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. This German word is used as a loanword in English and some other languages.”

What Wikipedia didn’t provide was any indication of whether schadenfreude was right or wrong, good or bad. I needed to look further afield. The Book of Proverbs was pretty clear, “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.” Many philosophers seem to agree. Aristotle, Burton and Adorno portrayed the emotion of schadenfreude as trivial and mean. Of course they are right when the subject of the misfortune is an innocent, struck down through no fault of his own: a fellow human killed by a drunk driver or paralyzed by a brain tumor. To feel any joy in that sort of misfortune perverts the very meaning of humanity.

But does that standard apply when adversity comes as a result of an act or decision that caused hurt to another? Is schadenfreude good when it is directed at arrogant, pompous fools who tumble from grace as a direct result of their effort to cause harm to another? When that happens surely the subject of the fools’ attacks is justified in feeling a moment of schadenfreude. In that instance schadenfreude might not be humanity but it is most certainly human. On these occasions, “I told you so” and “what goes around comes around” and “karma” are understandable and right. These fools deserve no better.

Coaching is an occupation full of opportunities to indulge in schadenfreude. I hate to think of how often Bill Parcells has been shafted by a player or an owner and then watched their career or team crumble. Sir Alex Ferguson must have experienced the same thing. Coaching swimming certainly has more than its fair share of volunteers ready to kick the coach around only to see their own fortunes slide down the pool drain. Who hasn’t experienced parents who cart their offspring from club to club because the previous coach was “no damn good?” I’ve never seen these swimmers succeed. How often have swim coaches had good swimmers dash off to a big club somewhere in search of nirvana? These swimmers usually improve for a bit before their careers slowly slip away. Dozens of teams disintegrate into hollow shells after their zealous owners dismiss a good coach. From Parcells and Ferguson to the nation’s swim coaches all this is ample fodder for a bit of coaching schadenfreude. Or is it?

I take my lead from Lydiard. I was at his home the weekend a New Zealand track world record holder came to tell him she was moving to another coach. At the time Lydiard was annoyed and predicted her career would suffer. A year or so later I was back in Auckland and we discussed what had happened to his ex-runner and the accuracy of his earlier predictions.

The new coach had changed her training to include a lot more speed work. The runner said this was progress. She was ending each day completely spent; something that never happened while she was with Lydiard. Her new team was the right move, made at the right time. Her best was yet to come, she said. The new coach also altered her running style to something he said was “more modern” than Lydiard’s technique. They had recruited nutritionalists, sport’s scientists, sports psychologists and hypnotherapists to smooth the path to running fame. To make matters worse they used TV, radio and the press to tell the world how much better they were doing things.

Sure enough though, the runner began to run slower. She was forever getting injured and needing small medical procedures. She was being beaten in races she would have won previously. Even in New Zealand she was being beaten. Surprisingly, Lydiard didn’t seem to care. “I’ve got too many other things to do,” he said. “Now what are your swimmers doing today?” In the circumstances a bit of schadenfreude would have been reasonable and justified. But there are better things to do.