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Is winning the most important thing in sports?

BY Tim Ellis

11th Aug 2023 Sport

Is winning the most important thing in sports?
Should sporting success solely be measured in wins and losses? Tim Ellis explores other metrics for measuring success
Losing (in the right way) is the new winning. That’s what England’s cricketers were saying in so many words following their defeat by Australia at Edgbaston in the first Ashes Test. 
"After day four (coach) Brendon McCullum said we had won already regardless of the result because of the reaction from people about the way we played, and the fact we had stuck to our style," claimed England’s frontline bowler Jimmy Anderson. Before the series even began, skipper Ben Stokes added that results are at the bottom of his list when preparing for a match. 

A win is “sticking to a style” not just an end result 

It turns out that McCullum’s entertainers secured hearts and minds this summer with an exhilarating style of play. They even managed to draw the actual series against a conservative opponent. England didn’t win the Ashes. They won the cricket culture wars. 
Ashes 2013 - is winning the most important thing in sports?
Celebrations at the SCG after Australia won the Ashes 5-0 in 2013. Image: Liani, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
When the Three Lions lifted the urn a decade ago in 2013, it felt empty as the team began to disintegrate internally. 3-0 sounded good but it was papering over the cracks. Jonathan Agnew claimed their style and manner were unloved. There was no Stokes-led legacy.
The 5-0 thumping down under a few months later confirmed that this team was all at sea. It was disconnected from itself and the public. Win or lose, there was nothing much to enjoy. 

How important are trophies as a legacy?

Going all in to create a positive and attacking brand of cricket, eschewing victory as the be-all-and-end-all, is quite the take for professional sportsmen. Some cynics would suggest it protects them against responsibility. Or the fear of failure. On the other hand, Stokes’s team has won 13 out of 18 Tests
"Eschewing victory as the be-all-and-end-all is quite the take for professional sportsmen"
Gareth Southgate has built a football squad that appeals to the nation. It is a team widely liked as approachable, young and talented with values off the pitch and real flair on it. They threaten to win trophies, unlike the Golden Generation who looked as if they were weighed down by domestic rivalries. Does this current side need to seize the moment and grab those fleeting opportunities to be European winners? It would be ultimate validation for the process. 

People don’t remember the runners-up

Naomi Osaka has won all four of her Grand Slam singles finals and, despite current issues off the court, was in no doubt about why she was in the sport: “I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up.” Osaka has since redefined her own version of success after opening up about her emotional traumas. The Japanese player is trying to develop a legacy bigger than the match or the tournament, just like Stokes. 
Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka in the 2020 US Open Finals. Image: AndrewHenkelman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Once upon a time, snooker’s six-time world champion Steve Davis mused that the best way to navigate the perils at the top level was to “play as if it means nothing when it means everything.” Davis was a serial winner, but the wider point of his statement was the yearning for carefree innocence. Big business discovers its next star and the pressure comes to deliver externally. Fans, sponsors, journalists and trophies all live in this goldfish bowl. Success is golden; the only currency we are told. 
Jimmy White lost all six World Championship finals that he featured in, yet his star power is not attached to how many titles won (although there were many). It was the way he went about the balls that delighted fans.

Going for it more important than winning or losing

The late Arthur Ashe was more of a Bazball advocate, deciding that the key was to get to a stage in life where “going for it” was more important than winning or losing. Marketa Vondrousova described her Wimbledon title as the most “impossible” to win. The unseeded Czech enjoyed the ride, whatever the outcome, as she had no expectations at all. 
Meanwhile, Ons Jabeur’s agonising near misses are now the narrative that will fuel her journey—losing sells too. The desperation to win that trophy on her smartphone was too big. 
"The way the game is approached can also bring as much joy as the result"
Jurgen Klopp, a man who has lost many finals as manager, would empathise with the Tunisian. The German trumpets the ride and the team more than salivating over the silverware. “If we are only happy when we are winning in the end, whenever your race finishes, what life would that be?” Klopp said.
Trophies are the validation of success on the field. The way the game is approached can also bring as much joy as the result. Australian captain Pat Cummins spoke immediately after the finale at the Oval: “Everyone has wanted to talk about the cricket. How good is that?” For a moment, it felt more important than retaining the urn…
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