FAST forward twenty-six years to 2012, Larkin’s line would come to me in a Forum letter I had banged out to the local papers, late in the night of August 12, after I had read, earlier that evening, a piece by Dr. Lee Wei Ling, headlined “Why I’m Against the Olympics,” published two days after the London Olympics concluded.
It was a huge, half-page affair that touched on the disappointment of losing, frowned upon the “boycotts, doping, bribery and terrorism,” and excoriated “the huge sums of money spent, with little or no concrete improvement to human welfare.” The idea of the Games as a circus, a “most prestigious” one at that, figured midway before ramping up into an attack at the very spirit and value of sports. Her arguments, like a diatribe against sportsmen, splattered at us like cud. Alas, most of us poor readers weren’t cows: there was no gustatory pleasure to be had from her cynical, bitter bombardment.
First, there’s the human cost, the hours that sportsmen have to put in—this devastates their chance at a good education so that, down the road, their adult career would be “limited.”
Second, there’s the whole premise of national pride: Winning a medal “does not make us more patriotic and more willing to fight to defend Singapore if we are attacked.” (Notice, she didn’t write “doesn’t” but “does not”). After all, those medals—our three table tennis bronzes—weren’t bagged by true-blue, born-and-bred-in-Singapore citizens. Now, those weren’t exactly her words; she merely let the statistics do the talking (and here, she quotes from The Times of India): Of the 173 table tennis players at the London Olympics, 55 were of Chinese descent, and 45 were born in China. So, uh-uh, those medals aren’t worth their weight in national pride.
That’s not all. Listen to her take on sports at the Olympic level: it’s “extreme,” and all that “frequent” injury is “contra-productive to health.” By argument, then, and in her “humble opinion,” why not channel the “significant sums of public money Singapore spends on training athletes for the Olympics and other international games” to “encourage and teach our population how to exercise for health”? That’s “better use,” in her mind.
This third point was what got me most. It doesn’t take into account how “stuff happens” in life and how “stuff does happen”; and it conveniently brushes aside the lessons of sportsmanship and the spirit of competition—the dare, the determination, the never-say-die-and-don’t, the dedication.
So, you’re scared of injuries, don’t do sports; so you’re scared you’re not going to have a future, don’t be a sportsman; so you want to win (don’t we all), yet you keep harping on the risk (and disappointment) of losing, and hoist that “it is no shame not to win” platitude on a pedestal. What’s with the fear? Why must everything smell of kiasu and kiaxi? No, we don’t need that style of thinking: It’s not just antiseptic, it’s toxic.
Who knows what roads less travelled look like? But if roads less travelled aren’t your thing, let’s reframe the question: who knows what journeys passionately travelled can and will look like? Can life truly be so scrubbed and germ-free? Yeah right! Can’t get injured, can’t lose your glasses to the wind and the water. So, go on, live your life moderately, not fully. Why? Because can’t keeps carping at you, and don’t too—but, of course, they will, if you let them. So, I say, extreme isn’t such a bad thing, is it? Try putting the word side by side with courage or determination, and see what you get: extreme courage, extreme determination—as opposed to calculated courage and measured determination.
And then Larkin visited me, and Mr. Dore breathed those words:
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
And then, I typed up my last paragraph:
Most of all, she forgets that sports mirrors life. Blood, sweat, and tears. These are not mere metaphors, but the very stuff that life—and sports—is made of.
Written in September 2015, this five-part essay is a toast to Timothy Dore, the Literature teacher who taught Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and the million mysteries and joys of Literature to the class of 1986/87 in Raffles Junior College.
・Mister Dore (Part I): The Meaning of Cud
・Mister Dore (Part II): Explain, Explain, and Leave Nothing To Chance
・Mister Dore (Part III): You Mean You Don’t Know ‘Ejaculation’?
・Mister Dore (Part IV): Musings on ‘Stuff’
You might also enjoy:
・Chill a Little, Dr. Lee! Let the Nation Honor Your Father.