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Honouring honour

school of sport:with TIM MIDDLETON

EVERY now and then we hear sportspeople announcing their retirement from international sport, while they declare they are continuing to play for their club — the great Indian cricketer MS Dhoni was one of the latest to do so last year though he will continue to fulfil his lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) contract.

They say they are doing so in order that they can prolong their club career, the club being the ones who pay the player’s salary. They are perhaps the same ones who play for their country for the chance to be seen and thus to gain a lucrative transfer to a bigger club. However, announcing our retirement from international sport does appear somewhat contrary, as a player is selected to play for his country; it is not his to choose, so how can he choose not to play for his country?

This is further heightened by the fact that for most sportspeople, the greatest honour is indeed to be selected to play for his country. It follows therefore that if we choose not to be selected, if we choose to retire from international sport, we are in effect saying that we do not consider it to be the greatest honour; we are more concerned about money or health (or pride, in possibly not being selected any longer) than honour. If it is the greatest honour a sportsperson can achieve, we should all be desperate and available to play whenever selected; we never retire. We cheapen the honour of playing for our country by picking and choosing when or whether we will play, in the same way that we cheapen the honour of winning trophies by cheating (which may echo the point made by Sophocles centuries ago when he said that we should, “fail with honour rather than win by cheating”. Mark Twain in turn echoed this when he argued that, “It is better to deserve honours and not have them than to have them and not deserve them”).
Students of English Literature may well remember the classic World War One poem by Wilfred Owen called Dulce et Decorum Est in which he sought to highlight that dying for one’s country may well be honourable, but it is certainly not sweet or pleasant (as the original Latin poem by Horace proposed); Owen should know as he did fight for his country in that horrific war; we read he was “caught in the blast of a trench mortar shell and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying amongst the remains of one of his fellow officers” and suffered severe shellshock, requiring him to recuperate for some time back in the UK before he returned to active service (although he could have stayed on home-duty indefinitely), only to be killed in action one week before the end of the war.

He clearly did not retire from fighting for his country but sacrificed everything.

The cheapening of the honour of representing our country is also reflected at age group representation, as often pupils are keener on what playing for their country brings than for the honour itself. So often, on being selected, their first question is to find out what kit they will get, what tours they will go on. Often, too, we find pupils being selected for their country at one age group and then choosing to play another sport; it is all about themselves. What is honour to them?

Many schools have an Honours board in their Hall, for those pupils who have achieved outstanding performances in some area; countries also award their own honours from time to time. However, honour is not about having our name in lights. It is interesting that in golf competitions, the person who wins a hole has the ‘honour’ of playing first from the next tee though, in contrast, in tournaments the players who are winning at the end of one round go out last in the following round.

The truth is that honour is not about self but about others. We will show how much of an honour it is to play for our country by continuing to play that sport and by contributing to the sport’s development, by accepting the responsibility of putting back into the game, for the sake of those who follow, rather than taking what we can get and moving on rapidly. Real honour is found in our actions, even if we fail. One of the Bible writers exhorts his readers to “Outdo one another in showing honour” and we need to encourage children to do that. We are to be more concerned with showing and giving honour than to receiving honour. The greatest honour should be found in our service for others. Children need to honour the sacrifice of their parents by giving their all, by making the most of every opportunity. We never retire from showing honour. Wilfred Owen did not do so and gained more honour as a result; neither must we.


l Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:\

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