ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 24 November 2012

FOUR Seasons tries to steer clear of writing about competitive sports. That’s what The Scotsman sports section is for. Yes, of course, skiing, climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, surfing and the like all have their competitive side – their global tours, world cups and league tables. But when you boil these activities down to the bare bones, you discover that they are all, in essence, non-competitive. For recreational footballers, even at the very lowest level (and I put myself in this category), the driving force behind a Tuesday night kickabout is the desire to score goals, to beat the other team, to win. But when recreational skiers go for a slide, they aren’t trying to compete with anyone – they ski simply because the sensation of sliding down the side of a mountain is enjoyable in itself.

If we all found ourselves living in some bizarre police state where competitive sports were suddenly, inexplicably banned, groups of young men and women would probably not gather in playing fields around the country on Sunday afternoons to kick footballs aimlessly into the air, simply because they derived pleasure from the thwacking sensation of boot meeting ball. Remove the competitive element from football – or rugby or tennis or golf – and these sports become largely pointless, and therefore joyless, activities.

However, in our notional police state, the majority of skiers, climbers, mountain bikers, kayakers and surfers would be able to carry on much as before. True, they might miss watching the very best practitioners of their chosen activity pushing boundaries in competitions on TV or (more likely) on the internet, but their own, non-competitive recreation would continue unimpeded.

Most of the time, the world of mainstream, white-lines-on-the-ground sport tends to ignore these non-competitive activities, even when they run their own competitions. But occasionally the two worlds collide, and when that happens the results are almost always ugly.

Witness the recent debacle over whether kitesurfing should replace windsurfing in the Olympic Games. Six months ago, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) voted to take windsurfing off the menu for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and replace it with kitesurfing.

Cue much despondency among competitive windsurfers, who suddenly faced the prospect of learning a new sport if they wanted to go to Rio, and much excitement among kitesurfers like Troon’s Holly Kennedy – interviewed by Four Seasons earlier this year – who suddenly found they had an Olympic Games to aim for.

But then, earlier this month, ISAF reversed its decision. Kitesurfing was out; windsurfing was back in. Kitesurfers tore out their hair; windsurfers breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Given the popularity of both sports, it seems a little odd that ISAF couldn’t bring itself to drop one or two of the many classes of sailing currently in the line-up for Rio and let both windsurfing and kitesurfing in. But let’s not get too upset just yet, because by keeping kitesurfing out of the Olympics, ISAF may actually have done the sport and its fans a favour.

Often, when sports with non-competitive roots are shoehorned into a competitive idiom for the benefit of people who aren’t familiar with them, the results can be (whisper it) a little bit dull. High performance windsurfing can be truly spectacular to watch, with sailors launching themselves off the crests of giant waves and performing ridiculous manoeuvres as they fly through the air.

But what do we get at the Olympics? Lads and lasses racing around a fixed course on flat water. You might as well assemble the best footballers in the world and have them compete in a “see who can kick the ball highest in the air” competition. By the same token, the best kitesurfers are now able to pull off absolutely mindboggling tricks by harnessing the power of wind and wave, but what would they have been doing in the Olympics?

Racing around a fixed course on flat water. So yes, on the one hand, it’s a shame that kitesurfers like Kennedy won’t get to go to Rio. On the other hand, it’s great, because it means they’ll now be able to spend the next four years giving their creativity full rein, rather than figuring out how to go as fast as possible in a straight line.

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