May 22, 2013

The perils of scoffing at failure

Excessive success can destroy inhibition, and hence the capacity for shame

"People keep on lighting fires and I have to put them out. If it gets dull I have to light them myself." Bernie Ecclestone, Formula 1's seemingly fireproof tsar, recently made that shameless confession. That's what excess success can do: destroy inhibition, and hence the capacity for shame. Think dictators, bankers, and priests. Think Google. Think Jimmy Savile. Think Salman Butt. Think Lalit Modi and that twattish tweet to do with match-fixing. Think H***** C***** and that bloody leather jacket.

Witness too, albeit less gravely, last Friday's email from Dubai, announcing that the ICC - having achieved, handsomely, its principal goal of not being seen as an Anglo-Australian mutual admiration society - is seeking hosts for its annual conference.

"The ICC Annual Conference has traditionally drawn considerable media attention, which, in turn, provides the host with significant international exposure," proclaimed CEO Dave Richardson. "This affords fantastic opportunities for profile-building and engagement within the international cricket fraternity as well as the broader sporting community." There's even a "Host Selection Process manual". But why on earth publicise it? In a just world, the mayor of New York would table a joint bid with Islamabad's new head boy, Nawaz Sharif.

Brazen is the only way to describe this public hawking. Check out all that nifty management-speak - "profile-building… engagement… exposure". Not a dicky bird about improving the FTP, sorting out the World Test Championship, eliminating corruption, and creating a better, fairer and - let's be unabashedly idealistic about this - nobler game.

The latest spot-fixing allegations spring from the same warped mindset. As one eminent Indian commentator put it to me, what else can you expect when defying the law of the land is perceived as a sign of success?

TV producers are now busy giving airtime to Gulu Ezekiel, a respected journalist who's been crying foul from the start. That regulating agents has only just occurred to the BCCI, who declined the services of the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit on cost grounds in 2009, merely reaffirms the way of the world: the fatter the profits, the deeper the complacency. The only other certainty is that the following statement by N Srinivasan would be hilarious if it wasn't so shameless: "If what's happened is true, greed has taken over."


Let's take a step back. How do we measure success? In this puzzling sporting life, it's not so much death or glory as dosh or glory (hence the fixers, yes, but also the tax-dodging owners). How can fourth place in the Premier League matter more than winning the FA Cup? Happy to prostitute themselves for the almighty TV dollar, the International Acronym Club walk a tightrope, the ECB and CSA as precariously as the IOC and FIFA. Sure-footedness is almost as scarce as an even-tempered English spring.

Success is a slippery beast: hard to capture, harder to hang onto, even harder to define. One man's ceiling is another man's flaw, as Paul Simon almost put it. WC Fields was nothing if not pragmatic: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it." It helps when you can compartmentalise. A photo in the latest issue of the Cricketer finds Chris Martin's feet nailed invisibly to the spot as Mitchell Johnson shivers his timbers - surely incontrovertible proof that being the object of derision bothered the Kiwi not a jot.

Others are less easily defeated. Look at how Nick Compton, once an intoxicating strokeplayer, reinvented himself as a teetotal Test opener; at how Shane Warne traded in the rough and tumble of Aussie Rules for the subtler if equally destructive flipper. To these determined souls it wasn't the runs or wickets that counted but the preparation: the inner struggle to change, adapt and grow. Ends need means.

Defining success is appreciably less tricky for a competitor in an individual pursuit than a collective one - unless, of course, you play in an event wherein the rewards for finishing tenth are enough to buy a new home

"The real value in setting goals is not in their achievement. The acquisition of the things you want is strictly secondary. The major reason for setting goals is to compel you to become the person it takes to achieve them." So says Jim Rohn, hailed as "the man many consider to be America's foremost business philosopher" by a magazine trading under the unequivocal title of Success, a publication to which he contributes and one that boasts, indeed, of being "What Achievers Read". Much as one hates to admire any duplicitous arch-politician, Winston Churchill hit the nail on the head: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

For professional athletes, life is more problematic. Continuing is seldom a choice. The physicality of the job shrinks the window of opportunity - we might take 50 years to reach the summit of ours; they've got about ten. Their obstacles, moreover, are stiffer. Sure, many of us face some of them in the workplace - racist, sexist or impatient boss, jealous colleague - but not disobedient hamstrings, disruptive weather, unscrupulous rivals, hostile crowds, and media savaging.

How you define success should, ideally, depend less on where you want to end up than where you started from. CLR James reckoned it was all about movement: it isn't "where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there". Sadly, this is not exactly a popular philosophy in a society keener on greed than persistence, let alone the wherewithal to count blessings.

Professional sport throws up more complexities, primarily because the line separating success from failure makes gossamer seem thick. The finality of the scoreboard, however, is countered by the impermanence of those twin imposters. Widen the context and a brave defeat can feel like a victory, an empty victory a defeat. Success may disappoint; failure may inspire.

Measured often and precisely, sporting success can be unsettling. It usually precedes maturity. It's also very conspicuous. It's how you handle it that matters. That, and the way you handle the only guarantee: failure.

To be a champion almost invariably demands that you dig into the very core of your being, narrowing your focus to such a degree that health - mental, physical and spiritual - becomes an afterthought. To make it to the top demands attaining excellence; staying there means not only maintaining it but withstanding the double blast of fame and schadenfreude. Muttiah Muralitharan is among the more freakish examples.

Defining success, furthermore, is appreciably less tricky for a competitor in an individual pursuit than a collective one - unless, of course, you play in an event where the rewards for finishing tenth are enough to buy a new home, in which case confusion is inevitable. And things can get fearfully complicated for those who play team games that revolve around one-on-one confrontation.

You won't need to read his as-yet unwritten autobiography, for instance, to imagine Paul Collingwood's feelings upon receiving an MBE for simply being in the right place at the right time when England regained the Ashes in 2005, knowing he hadn't contributed anything of clearly discernible substance. All the more reason to lament that England's all-time greatest outfielder is currently suing a financial adviser to whom he entrusted his family savings.

In defying the black-and-white clarity of solo endeavours, team sports can perplex. Blame/hail the wonder of the draw. If denying can be classified as succeeding, how can you ever be sure what to feel? Did lowly New Zealand regard that home series stalemate against mighty-ish England as a moral victory or an opportunity squandered? Did the latter deem that Auckland rearguard a success, ensuring an upbeat end to a humbling tour, or did they look in the mirror and see both complacency and an inability to cope with expectation? That there can be one public answer and a very different private one to all these questions is an intrinsic part of sport's appeal. A word for this muddled mindset? "Succelure" trips off the tongue nicely.

What, then, of watching England bat at Lord's last Thursday? Did clouds and pitch decree such overt caution or was it the skill and discipline of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, and Neil Wagner? Was Shane Bond justified in touting the New Zealand pace attack as a budding masterwork or did the top order cede the initiative through timidity? Forget - Broadly speaking - about ends justifying means. The most pertinent and time-honoured question is one few answer truthfully: did fear of failure override hunger for success?

The best conquer that fear through sheer loathing: to them it's a dragon not to be obeyed but slayed. That's what drove Roger Federer to his record haul of grand slams. That's what stopped Mike Hussey surrendering his baggy green dream when he turned 30. Judging by the runs gushing from that hitherto erratic bat, perhaps venting to a reporter about his unhappiness at Yorkshire was Adil Rashid's attempt to slay his dragon? But for most of those who have tasted success and crave more, fear of failure is the breakfast of champions: it supplies clear goals, keeps you on track and - dare one say it - honest.

Maybe it's better this way. "A writer like me must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star," F Scott Fitzgerald told an interviewer during his alcohol-fuelled descent toward a criminally premature death. "It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing can happen to me, nothing can harm me." Once you start scoffing at failure, when you convince yourself you're immune to the consequences, you step outside the tent. And once you've done that, the pissing comes easy.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton