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LAST Wednesday, I found myself arguing with a complete stranger. The commotion took place while I was seated along Gate 5 in Heathrow's Terminal 3 and waiting for my flight home following a week-long jaunt in ol' blighty.
I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of the Olympics and was still experiencing something of that collective high. The couple sitting next to me were not. He was trying his hand at some medium-level Sudoku and she was reading to him selected excerpts from the daily paper.
She started on what must have been either an op-ed or a letter to the editor when she suddenly let out an audible grunt. "I can't believe this!" she exclaimed, before proceeding to read the paragraph aloud to her husband.
The writer of the offending piece had, to her dismay, suggested that all the Britons who had done so well in these Olympics be worthy of honours from the queen. From the organisers to the medal winners, each and every one of them deserved recognition of some sort. They had, after all, brought such glory to Great Britain.
The woman next to me, however, begged to differ. They can't just be giving out honours willy-nilly. What would it mean if every Tom, Dick and Harry were a KBE (Knight of the British Empire? Surely a gold medal alone isn't qualification enough for some 29-year-old from Leeds to be a Dame? Her words, not mine.
I waited for her to finish her little rant before imposing myself on their conversation. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop." I said. "But I'm afraid I see nothing wrong in honouring these national heroes. In fact, I do more than welcome it, I see it as something necessary, for sport and for nation-building."
What ensued was a rather heated debate. So incensed, that it wasn't long before we had garnered something of an audience.
My arguments were as follows.
I told the woman that I believed it was the duty of the state to acknowledge and to honour those who did it proud. Rewarding such accomplishments does more than just instil a sense of worth in those who have served their country but also serves to inspire the next generation. To show them that the goals they're striving towards aren't just their own but that of an entire nation's.
I told the woman that I believed a lifetime of achievement was not a function of age, but instead a reflection of accomplishment. Because there are no guaranteed returns when it comes to sport. It isn't like becoming a doctor, or an engineer, or a lawyer. Where even mediocrity allows you a chance to get by. To make a vocation out of sport requires a lifetime commitment. It requires you to strive constantly to be the best and to be the first. Hadn't these medal winners been training their whole lives for this one moment? Aren't most of them already at the absolute pinnacle of their careers? What then is the virtue of waiting until they are in their twilight years before recognising their achievement?
To think that money and honours will serve only to make our athletes "soft", to think that such rewards run the risk of breeding athletes that do what they do for nothing more than fame and fortune, is to woefully misunderstand the psyche of sportsmen.
Those who strive for gold, to be the fastest, or jump the highest, do it because they are driven by some unholy force. They do it because they want to. They do it because they have to.
That being said, the money and the titles are important, if not for them, then for us. Because all enduring traditions -- be it in sport, or in literature, or in art -- begin with a set of social practices that celebrate those particular norms and values. They are crucial in building capacity. They are crucial to creating a sense of continuity.
In 1996, at the Atlanta games, Great Britain took home just one gold medal. Today, they rank third in the medal tally with 29 gold medals. Their success was due to a combination of many factors. The recognition that sport was a driving force for national unity, a funding programme that put more than STG100 million (RM500 million) a year into training and capacity building, and a society that had a strong and positive sporting culture. In just 16 years, Team Great Britain had become a global force to be reckoned with.
I asked her if that in itself wasn't gold-worthy?
She didn't answer. They were boarding the plane by row numbers and hers had just been called.