Cards, sprinters, support riders. And winning as a team!
Have you ever played buraco? You probably know it’s a Rummy-style card game. And you might even know it has something to do with “pots” of 11 cards stacked to the side to be used when all your cards are played.
Like in all card games, luck can make the difference. When the game is played in pairs, any fortune your opponents might enjoy can probably be counteracted by you and your partner getting your strategy right. In essence, you need to work out how to help his or her hand, to make things better for you. It really comes down to knowing when to strike and when to sacrifice. Sometimes, taking the cards discarded by your opponents, to make a three-card sequence, can really open things up. And then your partner can exploit those cards.
Sprinters or support riders?
Such tactics might seem useless at that moment. But they might also set your partner up for a killer move shortly afterwards. Yet, that mysterious 11-card pot, just waiting to be taken, often proves too much of a temptation for most players. To get it, you have to finish your cards. And drawing cards without any assurances seems to take you away from the goal.
I haven’t included a cycling metaphor here by accident, but we’ll come back to it later. In buraco, it is the exception, not the rule, who knows instinctively when to make a sacrifice for the good of the team. Games are lost because of this. Then, perhaps, a few light-hearted insults fly, blaming your bad luck or cursing your opponents for being jammy… We hardly ever really think that, even though it’s only a game, we could have played our hand better. This makes me ask a question: “Is there some connection between this and what happens in matches and races every Sunday?”
In football, there might be a crazy attempt to score, when a cross to a team-mate would have won the game. In volleyball, perhaps a spike is blocked by your opponents, when a team-mate was calling for the ball. What about in Formula 1, when a driver holds off his faster team-mate, whose rival for the title is able to get away, making it impossible for anyone to catch him.
Cycling versus buraco
In many sports, we find the same story: the final whistle or the chequered flag brings things to an end, but the key people could have had a different impact on the game or race. In many cases, they could have turned the result in favour of their team-mates.
There might well be more than one sport where this doesn’t really happen, but as hard as I try, thinking about the most watched sports, I can only think of one: cycling. Hence, the metaphor not being accidental.
Given I’m partly reflecting on how powerful education, in the broad sense, can be, it is quite strange that I’ve ended up talking about a sport that, at least in the collective imagination, is practically a synonym for doping. Let me make something clear: doping has been maliciously attacking and infecting sport at all levels practically as far back in the mists of time as one can see.
In cases where people have pushed forward with investigations into the powerful lobbies backed by the pharmaceutical houses or by major vested interests – even State interests, as in Russiagate – it has bubbled to the surface.
So, which sports top this list? No, I’m not going down that path here. Let me just note one intriguing figure and then get back to the thrust of my article. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently published rankings that show the sport with the highest percentage of doped athletes is bridge! The figure is as high as 22 per cent of players. Next is wrestling, with 19 per cent, followed by American football at over 5 per cent and so on. Even noble athletics performs worse than the much-maligned cycling, at 1.1 per cent.
I’m not interested in defending a sport that has plenty of issues. Yet, as I already touched on, there is something in cycling that relates to the question of education and I feel we should explore it. I’m back to the idea I got from buraco, just to be clear. Put more generally, I’m talking about our desire to constantly seek personal victory. We always want to be the sprinters, not the support riders.
Team victory, shared victory
The enormous respect for the hierarchy in cycling is not merely a contractual issue or a question simply of the internal balance on the teams. No, the point is it comes from a clear ethical sense that is part of cycling and that soon draws in and educates the latest young bucks.
Why does a cyclist – even a top one – sacrifice himself to help a team-mate or an attack, without any personal ambition, simply to create problems for his team leader’s rivals? Why does a good cyclist work incredibly hard for hundreds of kilometres, using up all the energy reserves in his body, just so the sprinter in his team can have a go?
The answer lies in attitudes more than words. It can be seen in that exultant rider in the middle of the group who has been caught a few metres from the line as he watches his team-mate cross the finish line first.
There might well be other sports, but looking at the numerous sports in which selfishness always cause the same problems, cycling is the antithesis of the selfishness that governs the many crooked paths in our lives. Cycling provides us with lessons of sincere, true faithfulness – lessons we can learn plenty from. Ultimately, these moments of shared joy simply have to be discovered.
Sometimes, all we need is for someone to tell us about it and teach us to appreciate it. If everyone ends up saying anyone who helps a team-mate is a fool because victory is personal, then we’ll start believing this. But, when you grow up in a world where you win and lose together, things change. When your team-mates are as happy as your team leader who actually crossed the line first, then even the new youngster will enthusiastically realise such behaviour is important, something to nourish and protect.
Cycling is merely a metaphor here. It’s the umpteenth I’ve used to justify my reasons because I believe education is the most powerful way to solve a thousand problems, even problems that are far more important than a cycle race. This is why we must never forget how critical it is for a community to constantly invest in education.
It might seem a bit of a stretch to make the leap I’ve just made. “What does deciding who crosses the finish line first have to do, on many levels, with what determines the events in our lives?” Excuse me for saying this, but I see a connection. I’m referring to something more complex, but I feel the question of education is pertinent and sadly contemporary.
Information is now so varied and widely available that we feel anyone can quickly find the truth. I think the opposite is true. While we know more, our critical sense isn’t as sound and as astute as that of our grandparents. We ask fewer questions and we’re heavily influenced by slogans. We have a dire need for proper education to restore our critical sense to assess what we see before us. Undoubtedly, this is merely an opinion. But taking this point of view, I feel civic education lessons are sorely needed, having once been part of the school curriculum. Perhaps because it kept young people awake to certain things.
It influences our decisions, which might be different if we thought a bit more. Let me give you an example, which might sound funny. I believe that it is our own convenient need to believe in miracles and quick fixes for everything that has doped the world of politics, ruling out anyone who seriously and pragmatically campaigns for the common good.
Small sacrifices, major progress
The fact is, we aren’t able to see small sacrifices as fundamental steps on the path to making progress together. When someone tells the people about the problems facing the country and what’s needed to achieve a common goal, well, that person hardly gains support. But if he or she ignores the countless problems and promises to cut taxes and guarantee welfare and well-being for everyone, well, that person is highly likely to be in government soon.
And then people will say they’re all the same, that politics is corrupt. Nobody seems willing to admit that we might also be guilty. After all, assuming a proper option for governance is out there or has been around in recent times, the facts tell us that, as a whole, we haven’t been able to identify it.
The only mitigating factor is that we haven’t been able to educate people to do this. We haven’t been given or received the right stimuli to improve our spirit of observation, our critical sense and our ability to exercise our right to choose.
Ultimately, it really is about choosing what is truly best for us. This is where the confusion lies because we live in a world in which, all too often, the only models to aspire to are about winning. In other words, we learn to choose solely what is best for “me”. However, in this we forget that, being better off but surrounded by a community filled with discomfort will never allow us to do well. Doing well or feeling good is not hiding behind closed doors, ignoring the problems facing others, but going out and helping to solve them. It is about giving up something in the hope that everyone has something. Doing well is about smiling back at someone who was already smiling at you, instead of looking jealously at you.
Support riders, sprinters, sport, nutrition: all related
“Zanardi, but what does any of this have to do with Enervit, where everything is about sport, nutrition and supplements?” someone might wonder reading my words. “It matters, because everything is connected,” I’d say. To win in sport and in life – whether what is at stake is fleeting glory, professional success or even simply peace of mind – you have to go through this.
If, like in buraco, the only thing that matters for us is to go and get that pot, then all we have left is to bark at and against everyone. And that is poverty, but not monetary poverty. We have lost the ability to be self-critical and to admit that, ultimately, we are also partly to blame. We have to accept it would have been nice to be sprinters, but also that we could have been better support riders.