FROM The Irish Independent
The school sports day was not on my radar screen. I knew it was coming and there was a degree of guilt about the fact that I was going to be away for it – but that was only when I thought of it, which wasn’t often. None of the kids had spoken about it. It didn’t seem important. Until my son’s seven-year-old friend came over for an afternoon and detailed plans to clean up on the medal front. He talked about all the events that it was possible to enter and his chances of winning each – which were always high. I was amazed by how much thought had gone into it. My kids said nothing.
The fallout occurred as soon as we were alone again. My daughter told me her legs were very short compared to the rest of her class. I wasn’t to expect any medals. My son took to the floor and started doing press-ups. Not wanting him to stress out, I told him that press-ups were really for people who wanted to build up their chests – long-term, bulk-building stuff. He’d be better off having an orange. He asked if he could go jogging with his father when he came home from work. I imagined them pounding the pavement. Too much exercise can make you sore, I reassured him. Still, he asked his father. Who told him he’d given up jogging months ago.
‘Run around outside for a bit,’ I told him.
And off he took.
A little while later, I looked out. He was circling the green. Looking lonely. Lonely but focused.
I thought he needed company and offered to race him. I was prepared to hang back a bit to let him win. But as soon as he said, ‘Ready, steady, go,’ he streaked off and I had to run flat out to even keep within two-meters of him. I was beaten by a seven-year-old. Genuinely beaten. His legs are half the length of mine. So much for feeling sorry for him. I wondered if I needed to start jogging.
I have always told them that winning doesn’t matter. It’s entering and having fun that counts. My parents had told me something similar. And I remember thinking how wrong they were. The whole point of a race is to win, I argued, albeit internally. You don’t enter to lose. Collecting a medal is a lot more satisfying than watching others do so.
So perhaps I should let my son do all he can to win. Nag my husband to take him for a mini-jog. It’s too late for me to start. I am beyond help.
At Irish College a long time ago, I lay on the bottom bunk, listening to fast people planning to clean up at the sports day, the following morning. Right, I thought. I am going to run faster than I ever have in my whole life. I’m going to show them. Did I? No. I ran fast. But I didn’t show them or anyone else. Instead, I learned the lesson that winning takes more than grim determination.
When your kids are very small you look forward to sports days. You want to see your little darlings perform. After you’ve been to a few, the excitement starts to wear off. Take last year. They were looking for volunteers. Like an idiot, I offered to help out at the inflatable slide. Should be fun, I though, cute. As my light summer skirt blew up around me, I tried in vain to stop the bigger kids kamikazing down on top of the smaller ones. In the end, I had to be rescued by a man who I suspect had some sort of military training. Never again.
There is another problem with sports days, probably the biggest. The parents’ race. Every year, my husband and I have managed to successfully sneak the family home before it’s announced. Last year, the kids copped on. They begged, cajoled, even bribed us to take part. I gave all the excuses I could think of:
‘Wrong shoes,’ I said, looking down at my flip-flops.
‘Bare feet,’ they said, looking down at theirs.
‘Winning doesn’t matter. It’s the fun that counts.’ They enjoyed that.
In the end, I ran. Image was important. My efforts could not be shown on my face. I had to look as if I was having fun, not trying to win. As it happened, I wasn’t so much trying to win, as trying not to finish last. I wanted my watching kids to be proud, or at least not disgraced, which made me realise that a part of their competing involves that too – wanting us to be proud. Kind of heartbreaking in a way.
From Manchester, I sent a text to wish them luck. I got one back, a while later, to say our son had won a silver for running. I was relieved and happy for him. And made a silent wish for my little girl with ‘short legs’. When a text came back a while later, saying she and her buddy had taken bronze in the three-legged race, I was ecstatic. And I still don’t know which was best, knowing that the person who would have been devastated not to have won a medal had, or that the person who had held out no hope had been stunned to be bringing something home.