Vail Daily column: Winning at all costs … costs plenty |

Vail Daily column: Winning at all costs … costs plenty

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens
Staff Photo |

Ever tried squeezing abrasive verbal toothpaste back into its tube? We desire to take back retorts that sounded silly, caustic or snooty.

Green Bay Packer head coach Vince Lombardi went to his grave frustrated that he couldn’t correct what he meant by “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Most Americans misconstrue what Lombardi intended to say. They assume this legendary coach advised winning at all costs, doing whatever it takes to get ahead — even cheating.

“I wish I’d never said the damned thing,” Lombardi lamented prior to dying. “I meant the effort … I meant having a goal … I sure as hell didn’t mean to crush human values.”

The apostle Paul used athletic imagery that suggests Lombardi’s original intent for winning. Racers need energetic starts off blocks. They must run hard every step of a race. Sprint with everything you’ve got, even if a gold medal eludes you.

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The apostle Paul described never-give-up effort with an analogy taken from the ancient Olympic Games. “I have fought the good fight,” he writes to young Timothy, who sometimes flagged because of ill-health. “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith,” (II Timothy 4:7).

Finish the race, even if you don’t win it, has familiar overtones to what Coach Lombardi’s maxim originally meant. The effort to win isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

In 1896, Baron de Coubertin cultivated a burning desire to re-light the Olympic Games’ torch. He combined the winning edge of the ancient Games with excellence Britons taught in Victorian public schools. “What is important in life is not to triumph, but to take part; what is essential is not to have won, but to have fought well,” declared the Baron as he resuscitated the Olympic Games, centuries after their flame was extinguished.

Baron de Coubertin’s credo didn’t exactly match the ancient Greeks’ winning spirit. They emphasized wearing the laurel wreath, breaking the finish line first, doing whatever it took to win. The Homeric creed “always to be the best” meant that you crushed opponents, resorting to cutthroat shenanigans to win.

In 776 B.C., the first run for the Gold in ancient Greece featured one winner. The only sporting event, virtually lost amid religious festivals and sacrifices to gods, was a 200-yard footrace. The Greeks called this distance a “stade” from which is derived our “stadium.”

Ancient lore tells that in 720 B.C. a runner Orisippus competed in a loincloth. He sprinted so fast that his loincloth fell off. Flushed with victory after he crossed the finish line, this racer’s fans interpreted his success as sign of the gods’ favor. In future competition, racers ran sans clothing.

Holding only a single race meant one winner-took-all in the first Greek Olympic Games. Fans cheered for their sprinting heroes to do what it takes to win.

No longer competing in the buff, today’s Olympic athletes sometimes secretly gain an edge by doping up. They cover this deceit; betting odds are slim that the scam is discovered.

The Russians believe winning is the only thing and have cheated to get the gold. Their sports officials manipulated doping test results at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Their cheating has been uncovered. Some Russian athletes were banned from competing in this summer’s Olympiad.

Russian authorities replaced tainted urine samples that showed doping with clean specimens. They passed them through a secret opening that looked like a “mouse-hole,” between the lab and a building next to it, which housed Russia’s state’s security service. Russian authorities destroyed athletes’ contaminated urine samples.

They did what it takes to win.

Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter for Donald Trump’s best-seller “The Art of the Deal,” comes clean on how this Republican presidential nominee plays to win and uses cutthroat business tactics to stay No. 1.

Having written “A Different Kind of Donald Trump Story” in 1985, Schwartz portrays him “not as a brilliant mogul but as a ham-fisted thug who had unsuccessfully tried to evict rent-controlled and rent-subsidized tenants from a building that he had bought on Central Park South. Trump’s efforts—which included a plan to house homeless people in the building in order to harass the tenants—became what Schwartz described as a ‘fugue of failure, a farce of fumbling and bumbling.’” All rigged to win at evicting tenants from their apartments in order to make big bucks by selling space to wealthier clients.

Says Schwartz of The Donald, “Trump only takes two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest … He wanted to be seen as a tough guy, and he loved being on the cover.” (The New Yorker, “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All,” by Jane Mayer, July 25, 2016).

Try your best. Be diligent at all your efforts.

Winning at all costs crushes and corrupts decent competitive values, turning a first-place Olympic medal into fools’ gold.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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