There’s Nowt So Strange As Folk

I’ve been told that an involvement in sport has character building qualities. Participants learn the value of fair play, learn to comply with a strict set of rules and, above all, learn to handle wins and losses with dignity and grace. Or, as Rudyard Kipling eloquently put it If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

I’m sure there is value in that view. Well-coached sport does yield benefits. Society does profit from the all those games being played in pools, tracks and parks. But it is not only sport that teaches life lessons. There are more role models in New Zealand than Richie McCaw, Peter Snell or Valerie Adams.

For example the behaviour of high profile politicians can be no less persuasive. And, for that reason, when they behave badly it is sad because of what it says about them and because of the hurt it does to those they influence. In New Zealand we are witnessing a classic case of what it means to be a bad loser. A month ago the National Party lost power to a Labour, Green and NZ First coalition. The penalty kick that sank the National team was delivered by the NZ First captain Winston Peters. He chose to play with Labour and relegated National to the second division.

And since then National politicians, in the best traditions of sore losers, have complained about everything. The rules, the playing field, the referee and the integrity of the opposition have all been called into question.

Since Mr Peters chose to form a government with Labour, it’s become known that before the election he initiated legal action against former Prime Minister Bill English and others over the leaked details of a pension overpayment. National Party leader, Bill English, said he thought it would have been in the public interest for voters to have known about the legal action before the election, not after it. Former minister Judith Collins last week said Mr Peters should front up. “I think New Zealanders are owed an explanation – was he being genuine?” she said.

The behaviour of English and Collins is stunningly similar to the USA soccer goalkeeper, Hope Solo.  In 2016 Solo was suspended from the women’s national team for six months as a direct result of critical comments Solo made after the United States was eliminated by Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. After the loss in a penalty-kick shootout, which sent the Americans home from the Games without a medal for the first time, Solo responded by assailing the Swedes’ conservative tactics and calling them “a bunch of cowards”. The comments were widely criticized as unsportsmanlike.

The same accusation, with equal validity, could be levelled at English and Collins. Sadly we have no federation with the power to send those two home for six months.

But for real bad sportsmanship former cabinet minister Chris Finlayson takes the biscuit. He has told parliament the coalition negotiations carried out after the election by NZ First leader Winston Peters were “essentially a fraud”. Finlayson said Winston Peters simply used the negotiations to play the main parties off against each other. He had “absolutely no regard” for Mr Peters.

Sporting examples of Finlayson style abuse are all too common. For example in the 1990 Australian Tennis Open Championships John McEnroe threw his racquet to the ground in frustration. The racquet broke and McEnroe received a point penalty for “racquet abuse”. McEnroe objected to the penalty and asked to see, Ken Farrar, the tournament supervisor. Farrar arrived, explained that the penalty would stand and turned to leave the court. As he walked away McEnroe shouted, “Just go fuck you mother.” Farrar returned and awarded the game to McEnroe’s opponent.

McEnroe’s response may have been more colourful but the Finlayson accusation of fraud is no less hurtful; no less revolting as an example of bad sportsmanship; no better as a nauseating example to New Zealand of how not to behave. Because Finlayson made his insult inside the safety of the House of Parliament we have no means of awarding the game to Winston Peters.

I suspect New Zealand will soon identify the National team as a bunch of old, grumpy, poor losers. They say you can tell more about character in adversity than in victory. Recent events mean we are learning much about the character of English, Collins and Finlayson. And it is not looking good. A team that behaves like this, when they lose, does not deserve to win. As their supporters begin to label them as poor losers National’s supporters will leave to cheer and vote for another better behaved team.

Post Script: I have written before about the Syrian swimmer I am helping with his training. It is amazing how something as innocent as a sign on a swimming pool wall can mean different things to different people. A couple of weeks ago we were in Whangarei at a swim meet. We walked into the pool and Eyad stopped and said to me, “Did they know I was coming?” I had no idea what he meant. Eyad pointed to a large sign on the back wall. It said, “NO BOMBING”.

I should add you will find no more peaceful and quiet person than Eyad. The irony of his comment though does reflect the sad and broken condition of his home country.

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