Just to "Win"? Really?

I cheated once. I think it was the only time I deliberately, knowingly did something to “win”. Fresno High School. Junior year. Chemistry. Totally bewildered by the subject. Bottom of my class. Final exam at hand. Flunk the final, flunk the course. Gotta gotta gotta get a passing grade.


Our teacher typically left the classroom for most of each hour, to smoke in the janitor’s closet down the hall. I knew cheating would be a cinch. As it happened, my seat was flanked by two Gordons—both very smart guys. So when Mr. Bondoc left the room, I told them I needed a bit of help so don’t be surprised if I look on your test pages to get some answers. No problem, they said.


True to my own congenital kookiness, I arbitrarily decided that I’d copy all the odd-numbered answers from Gordon M. on my left, and the even-numbered answers from Gordon E. on my right. And so I did.


I have felt stained by that episode ever since. For me, the whole point of any test—whether it be in a classroom, in a work setting, or on the field of sport—is for me to learn how I am doing. How I am really doing. Not necessarily relative to other people, but relative to my own intentions to make something of myself in that situation.


Seventy years later, I pretty much understand why sixteen-year-old Eliot was panicked enough about flunking to sell his integrity for a passing grade. It felt pretty crucial at that moment. It wasn’t about winning; it was about staying viable for college.


But I have never, and would never, knowingly cheat at a sporting contest. I played tennis for seventy-five years, and while I’d rather win a match than lose one, the truth is that winning a match has never meant all that much to me. Winning the point in play at that moment—oh, yes! I’m passionately committed, scurrying after an opponent’s shot or whacking a topspin cross-court or chiseling off a drop shot. But I’m somewhat less driven to win the game. Even less concerned to win the set. And, the match? Well, by the time I’d get to my car in the parking lot, I’d struggle to recall who won the match.


When I’d get home after tennis, Patti would always ask me how it went. And she learned early on that my response—upbeat or not so much—was keyed to how I had played. Not the score of the match. I was living the score I gave myself for either playing the way I hoped to, or failing to.

And so I am confounded by what I witnessed today in the Olympics final for women’s ice skating. As anyone who has followed the Olympics even casually knows, the fifteen-year old Russian skater Kamila Valieva was widely regarded as a shoo-in for a gold medal. The expert commentators described her as a once-in-a-generation genius on skates, and her performance in the first round of women’s skating (as national teams) she abundantly justified their description and expectations. Brilliant, polished, charming, in a class by herself.


But before the second round (skating for individual honors) it was revealed that she had previously failed a test for doping—taking any banned medication known to enhance athletic performance. She was found to have a drug called trimetazidine in her system prior to the Olympics, an angina drug for which no fifteen-year-old on planet earth has a legitimate clinical need. On the basis of its being detected in her blood, she would have been banned from participating at all had the fact been made known prior to the start of the games. But it wasn’t.


When the news of her positive testing finally did break mid-Olympics, she instantly became the cause célèbre of the week. Expert commentators unanimously agreed she should not be permitted to continue competing. But a panel of officials delayed banning her, allowing her to continue as damaged goods. Even though no one imagines she dreamed up using trimetazidine herself, a rancid cloud of scandal darkened her every moment in the public eye—turning her into the world’s most famous new victim of child abuse.


As one whose dominant gene for “winning” must be recessive instead, I am utterly unable to comprehend what “winning” meant to the adults who subjected this child to this abuse. The abuse of inflicting the drug on her body, yes. But worse, the abuse of inflicting a permanent stain on both her reputation and her own sense of integrity. Forever. For the rest of her life. They inflicted a lifetime sentence of “cheater” and “loser” on her that will be the subtext of her name whenever it appears, no matter what kinds of athletic superiority she may proceed to display.


What did these adults need in their lives, so badly, so pathetically, to make themselves seem to be winners by ruining the life of a young athlete who had a legitimate chance to be a real winner without their corrupting her body, her achievements, and her reputation? What kind of losers are they, these low-life strivers willing to manipulate a precious young girl for their own benefit?


When she took to the ice this morning to compete for the gold medal in individual skating, the television camera did a closeup on her face. It filled the screen. And it filled me with nausea. I saw death in her face. This young girl who had taken the ice just one week before, full of life and optimism and ebullience, displayed the chilling mien of a cadaver.


I said to myself, “She is ruined. She cannot possibly perform well today. She’s done for.” And of course she was.


Some years ago, a NFL coach offered cash bribes to his players if they so badly injured a rival player that that player had to be removed from the game. Winning was all that mattered, no matter what violation of human or moral boundaries it required. He was fleetingly chided and suspended for one year. One year. I still find it incomprehensible that someone so demonstrably devoid of sportsmanship was ever allowed to resume his coaching duties, but he was.


And I can’t imagine that the miserable creeps who have ruined young miss Kamila Valieva would be allowed to continue in their esteemed roles, either. But they will.


Thank God the super-competitive guys I have competed with, for whom winning is really, really important, also come equipped with a decency gene that means sportsmanship is even more important than winning.


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