As an athlete, I spent my life thinking about winning and losing.
And now as a journalist, I spend my life talking to people about winning and losing.
Which was why it was such a refreshing change last week to speak to an athlete for whom winning and losing doesn’t enter the equation.
Danny MacAskill is the world’s greatest contemporary stunt cyclist, perhaps the greatest ever. For more than a decade, he has been doing things on a bike that appear to defy gravity and logic; it would seem impossible to ride a bike along a tennis net, yet MacAskill manages it.
This trick is just one of many in his new film “Danny MacAskill: Postcard from San Francisco”, which was released last week and the reason I spoke to him in these pages just yesterday.
For all MacAskill’s mind-blowing bravery when he is on his bike, he is an understated guy, but what struck me when talking to him about his career is the absence of competitiveness.
This is in stark contrast to 99.9 per cent of athletes, and I include my former self in that category, whose entire existence is defined by winning and losing.
MacAskill describes his craft not so much as a sport but more of an art, and himself as less of an athlete and more as a storyteller.
There is little doubt that MacAskill is an athlete – no one could execute the stunts he does without being in fine physical condition – but the difference in mentality between him and someone who describes themselves as an elite athlete is refreshing.
Competitive sport brings out the best in a lot of people, but there can also be little argument that it brings out the worst in many others.
Yes, competitive sport teaches many valuable lessons and in life, there are winners and losers and so eliminating that entirely from sport is counterproductive. But equally, if the competition aspect discourages so many from continuing – and we know it does – is it worth continuing to push that agenda quite so incessantly?
Competitive sport has produced some of the world’s greatest moments in entertainment, but few would say that watching MacAskill’s new film, or any of his countless previous ones, is any less enthralling, breath-taking, entertaining or inspiring than anything competitive sport can produce.
Yet a pursuit akin to MacAskill’s, which sees him fail tens, hundreds or sometimes, even thousands of times before he succeeds, generates so many of the benefits of competitive sport without the plethora of off-putting elements.
Competitive sport makes cheats out of people who had never before been dishonest, it makes people disproportionately selfish and, in so many cases, it results in people judging their worth on their results on the sporting field which is not only unhelpful but also unhealthy.
So, when considering how to encourage more kids – and adults for that matter – into a more active lifestyle perhaps, rather than pushing competitive sport, there should be far more emphasis on the kind of avenue MacAskill went down.
Clearly, few will come close to scaling the heights, literally and metaphorically, that he has, but I’ll never be convinced that many, if not most, of the benefits reaped by competitive sport are also gained by doing something that is uncompetitive.
How many more kids would be on bikes if there were more opportunities for them to pursue a life like MacAskill’s rather than thinking competitive sport is the only option open to them?
MacAskill, and those like him, clearly retain a level of innate competitiveness; without that, they would be bereft of the drive and motivation that pushes them to train and practice for hours each day.
But they are not obsessed with winning and losing. They are not driven to cheating. And they are not defined by their sport.
For so many, that’s a far more valuable pursuit than competitive sport.
AND ANOTHER THING
On Wednesday, the Scottish Sports Awards will crown Scotland’s Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year and for a country with a population of only 5.5. million, the shortlist is an indication of how disproportionately Scottish athletes achieve global success.
The Male Sportsperson of the Year shortlist includes Jack Carlin, Sam Hickey, Jake Wightman and Duncan Scott; between them they have amassed 14 major championship medals this year alone and that is with Scott having missed the World Championships due to illness.
The Female Sportsperson of the Year shortlist consists of Neah Evans, Sarah Adlington, Eilish McColgan and Laura Muir; all are major championship winners over the past 12 months and there is surely only a hair’s breadth between them when it comes to deciding the winner such have been their achievements in 2022.
For what it is worth, my votes would go to Wightman and McColgan.
Wightman’s world 1500m title was both remarkable and historic and, for me, one of the greatest stand-alone achievements ever in Scottish sport ,while McColgan’s four-medal haul, including Commonwealth 10,000m gold, in the space of just a few weeks during the summer was immensely impressive.
That is before we even come to Team of the Year, which will surely go to Team Muirhead, the curlers led by Eve Muirhead who won Olympic gold in Beijing in February.
Whoever ends up taking home the awards is not the main point, though; what is far more pertinent is to appreciate the special era of Scottish sport we are currently enjoying.
Football may still dominate Scotland’s sports’ media coverage but never forget that it is elsewhere that Scottish athletes are truly excelling in numbers.