The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will soon be upon us, that quadrennial gathering of the world’s best athletes. But we are hearing from so many of them that they plan not to attend, citing a host of reasons—their health, fear of terrorist activity, unfair competition because of doping, or the unpreparedness of the host country.
I remember a different set of games, played by girls and boys in the schoolyards we frequented. No one was obliged to take part but nearly everyone did, in one fashion or another, because it was fun.
There weren’t a lot of specific rules involved because the games varied tremendously from one day to the next. There were always a few standard guidelines that everyone was familiar with, but usually nobody bothered much with them—unless, of course, someone violated the sense of fair play that was commonly shared. Whenever that happened, which wasn’t too often, arguments would flare up, each side would proclaim its case, and finally—perhaps so as not to waste too much of the playing time—a consensus would emerge and the games would continue.
Winners predominated, but only because the games allowed more opportunity to win than to lose. And since nobody made any effort to keep track of scores and points once the contests ended, every kid in the schoolyard could be a winner in retrospect, a champion in classroom reverie. Every participant could find some measure of satisfaction in the play, some joy in the sport of it.
After a while, though, those games changed. Some of the adults in the schoolyard, for the purest of reasons, decided to contribute their time and energy to help the kids organize. They offered the advice and assistance that comes with experience; and out of the chaos the adults thought they observed in the schoolyard, they brought order.
The vague and tenuous rules that previously governed the games were sharpened and recorded. And all the girls and boys were made to learn them. No disagreements were tolerated, and some of the adults volunteered to serve as game officials to ensure fair play. Many of the games—those that didn’t lend themselves easily to such organization—were dropped in favour of those that did.
A lot of the kids were dropped, too, because there were no longer as many opportunities to compete for those whose game-playing abilities were not as fully developed. These children were kept in the schoolyard, but off to the side where they could watch and cheer the others at play. They became onlookers, hero-worshippers, only able to enjoy the experience vicariously. And gradually, the games became The Games.
The Games, remember? They were played by the very best girls and boys in every schoolyard. But because there weren’t enough top-calibre kids in any one yard to sufficiently challenge their skills, the adults arranged for them to play against girls and boys from other schoolyards.
They played hard. They did themselves proud. In their various sweaters and uniforms, decked out in colours unique to their own schools, they vied with one another to see who was truly the best. The purpose was not just to compete, but to win. Records became increasingly important, first to establish and then to shatter. And over a period of time some schools gained reputations as powerhouses in the competitions.
In order to attain such heights, or to remain on top once there, some schoolyard teams resorted to additional measures. They enticed the best of the younger children to attend the big-name schools; they lobbied for changes to the rules of the contests to favour their own talents and skills; and they began to heap criticism on other schools who engaged in the same sort of tactics.
Eventually, one schoolyard team had had enough. Perhaps because of an inability to compete at the highest level, or a sense of futility when playing the better school teams, a decision was taken to stop competing in The Games. The other schools protested loudly, but to no avail; the boycott held. And then more of the smaller, less successful schools made their decision to drop out, too. In just a short time, The Games were reduced to a shadow of their former glory.
The kids, of course, were rather confused by it all. After being told by the officious adults to work and train and practise, and just as they were beginning to take their exalted status for granted, they discovered that it had all been in vain. There would be no more competition. The Games were finished.
So they returned to their respective schoolyards, disheartened, disillusioned, downcast. And there, to their surprise, they found that no one else in the schoolyard cared. All the other girls and boys had long since lost interest in what the more skilful of their peers were doing in their more highly-organized competitions.
Back in the schoolyard, the other kids, the ones left behind, had begun to play on their own again. Free of the interference and regulation of the over-zealous adults, they had rediscovered their games. There weren’t a lot of specific rules involved because the games varied tremendously from one day to the next. There were always a few standard guidelines that everyone was familiar with, but usually nobody bothered much with them. They just played to the best of their abilities, and enjoyed the freedom and the exhilaration of being included.
The games. Nobody was obliged to take part but nearly everyone did.
Because it was fun.