Don Miller, Will to win: The West at play (Review)

Sport is probably not the first subject you expect to find here, but it is in fact the focus of my latest read, Don Miller’s Will to win: The West at play. Published by independent Melbourne press, Hybrid Publishers, it was offered to me after my Monday Musings post a few months ago on Australian Rules in literature. In that post, I wrote that Australian Rules “can over-emphasise competitiveness to the point that winning overrides being fair and just”. I said this of Australian Rules because that was the subject of my post, but the statement is true of much sport – that is, of elite, professional sport – and it’s this “truth”, this issue of winning, that Don Miller examines in Will to win.

Who is Don Miller? He’s not familiar to me, but he apparently worked in the Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne for 30 years until 1995, and then in 2006 he established an organisation called the Melbourne Centre of Ideas. I’m not sure what his academic credentials are, exactly, but “creative thinking”, particularly on society and values, is his mantra.

Miller writes in his Introduction that the book was inspired by two ideas. One is anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s statement in his book The savage mind that when football was introduced to New Guinea the locals changed one rule: the game was to be played until both teams were equal. Love it! Miller read this a few decades ago, but the second notion is far more recent: it’s the “failure” of Australia’s swimmers at the 2012 London Olympics. There was such a hue-and-cry about this during and after the Games, including blaming post-mortems, apologies galore, and the commissioning of a review! I remember being horrified. Well, so was Miller. He had, unsuccessfully, tried to write about sport many times before, but the London situation gave him the angle he was seeking: he would write about “contemporary professional sport” and frame it with a reference to New Guinea.

So, this is what he does, approaching it, he says, in a spirit of enquiry:

to follow my own thoughts; to see where they take me; to consider new questions as they periodically erupt. A journey of discovery, clarification, and pleasure.

Several themes run through the book, the main ones stemming from Western culture and civilisation, from the way the West looks at the world. Western thinking he argues tends to be dichotomous (that is, to see issues as black/white, or, in this case, win/lose). The West is focused on the measurable, believes actions should be purposeful, and admires progress. He explores these ideas in terms of their relationship to sport – of how they frame the way we view, practice and understand sport. 

Sport’s excesses

The overriding motif is – as you can tell from the title – that winning is everything. The logical extension of this is the idea of “excess”. To win, sportspersons push themselves – physically, emotionally and mentally – to a point beyond endurance, to, in fact, self-harm. Take hurdler Sally Pearson, who, Australians know, is a tough, determined competitor. She said after the London Olympics:

My back was killing me. It’s just a matter of telling your body that you have to do it, no matter what – I know I am not an old athlete. I’m only 26, but just the way my body is ageing at the moment and my disc is degenerating, it’s just a matter of trying to keep it intact so I can compete at least until Rio.

But, the more sensible (value judgement here!) of us think, what about your post-sport life?

So, there are the punishing regimes athletes put themselves through in order to be the best, to win, regimes that Miller likens to training for and partaking in war. Is such self-harm worth it, he poses. He quotes the infamous Lance Armstrong who famously said “losing and dying; they’re both the same”. Tour de France athletes, we know, undertake punishing training to compete in a gruelling race. But mention of Armstrong of course raises another by-product of competitive sport, that of cheating and corruption. There is a fine line between “winning” and “winning at any cost”, with the latter referring not only to the aforementioned physical and mental cost to the athlete, but to crossing over the line of fairness and ethics to something more ruthless. Armstrong epitomises this crossover, but is by no means the only sportsman to have been so lured. In his discussion of Armstrong’s behaviour, Miller suggests that his behaviour could be seen as “the exemplary model of a Western businessman”. A fair analogy?

Sport’s truths

Miller also explores some “truths” that have been promulgated about the value of competitive sport, arguing that some are false (such as “the practice of sport is a human right*”) and others overstated (such as that sport will set you up for life). Really, he questions? Sport a human right, like food, shelter and security? As for setting you up for life, Miller asks that, even if we agree that sport can have these benefits, “does it have a monopoly?” What about being an oboe player in the Australian Youth Orchestra, or part of a multidisciplinary team pushing the boundaries of science, or even being a wheat farmer or apprentice plumber? Don’t the skills learned here also train you for life? Life, he suggests, is complex, and to propose otherwise, to propose there is a “singular model or formula”, is grossly misleading.

Then there’s that ultimate “truth” about losers, that they are, well, losers, that even second place is losing. Miller quickly puts paid to that idea. We all know winners who do not “succeed” and losers who learn valuable skills. Indeed, it’s worth considering, he says, Jean Cocteau’s statement that “to succeed is to fail”, a statement that “breaks from conventional dualistic thinking”.

Will to win is not so much an academic work, as a clearly written, personal investigation of a topic that has long interested Miller. It is not footnoted, though he does cite sources as he goes, particularly from newspapers, and there is a bibliography. Does it have a conclusion? Yes, and no. This is what he says near the end:

This book returns again and again to the excess in modern sport – to its ubiquity and impact. Whatever it does, it goes too far, and the cumulative consequences can be disturbing. The book is a call for moderation of all its qualities, a change of emphasis, a shift towards a more expansive range of values.

The challenge is to think and imagine other ways of engaging in sport – a challenge that he suggests we should take up now. Can we Westerners, for example, see our way to a win-win value? I enjoyed the read – but, in me, he was preaching to the converted. I’d love to know what those more passionate about competitive sport think, those who expected and accepted the apologies of Australia’s 2012 London Olympics Swimming Team. What would they answer to Miller’s questions?

* The Olympic Charter

Don Miller, Will to win, book coverDon Miller
Will to win: The West at play
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000580

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

20 thoughts on “Don Miller, Will to win: The West at play (Review)

  1. Another book downloaded into my iBooks library – thanks, J.

    Over the years as I have watched mates hobbling around I have blessed the chances which meant I never played competitive sport! I still walk without impediment.

    • Haha, love it Jim. Being of a sensible bent myself, I find it hard to understand pushing yourself the way these sportspeople do. When you read it, do come back and let me know what you think.

  2. Wow, this is as brave as James Brown’s book Anzac’s Long Shadow!
    You know, one of my proudest moments as a mother was when The Offspring tackled the Melbourne to Warrnambool bike race. It’s a very, very long way, (about 250k, I think) and The Girlfriend and I were tired out by the end of the day, just from tagging along as support crew.
    By the last hour, it was just a determination to finish, and there was one other competitor with him. They decided together that neither of them was to be last, so they linked arms at the finish line and rode over it together. Now that’s sportsmanship, eh?
    BTW He inherited the sporting genes from the Ex, not from me…

    • Ah, Lisa, yes, brave, you’re right. I remember being proud when my 11 year old son did the 10K fun run here! Walking yes, but running? And no, our son got no sporting genes from either of us. Not sure where they came from if truth be known. He’s done a marathon, raced puffing billy, and done some long overnight walks, but he knows when to stop I think, realising recently that the joints are at risk. Thank goodness!

        • Absolutely … You know that I like a few sports, like the tennis, but I don’t like much of the the baggage, which usually relates to competitiveness over sportsmanship, that too often accompanies sport.

  3. Interesting read, I don’t agree with it all because sport is often not about winning but about doing your best. Possibly achieving objectives through sport gives you control you don’t have over other aspects of your life. This year I completed the Rottnest Channel swim, 19.7 km. I was happy to finish but also angry at taking 10 hours rather than the 7 I had been counting on. Next time I will do better, and yes, if you’re going to train 20 km/week it probably helps to be obsessive.

    • Thanks Bill. I don’t think he’d be anti what you’re describing. He’s focusing on elite competitive, particularly professional, sport. He would though I think question obsessiveness in other levels of sport that equated with “excess”, excess that risked long term health or that perhaps impacted other, say, responsibilities in life. He’s not anti sport but is critiquing how the west views it.

  4. Wow, I hadn’t heard that about your Olympic swim team. Crazy! I think part of the problem with elite sport is that it has become big business. There is so much money to be won and lost it is ridiculous and puts enormous pressure on the athletes who already have enough stress and pressure as it is. Even supposedly amateur sports when they reach college level it seems everyone loses all reasonableness. What is it that makes people so driven that they are willing to make debilitating injuries even worse? Because I ask that question that is probably why I am not an elite athlete. Well, that and perhaps a few other reasons 🙂

    • Haha Stefanie. I ask the same question and realise as you that the very asking of the question is the answer. It ‘s probably complicated and varies from athlete to athlete. For some money and fame might be the driving thing, but for others in elite sports that are not well-funded or well-recognised it has to be something more internal.

      Miller does talk about business of course, but I wanted to focus on some of the other ideas … So I’m glad you mentioned it.

      • A fascinating post. The sports cult has long gone bonkers worldwide. The best book about this subject I have read was that superb piece of journalism about American football, Friday Night Lights. I know that you are an admirer of Orwell’s journalism and his essay on The Sporting Spirit is as relevant now as ever it was.

        • Thanks Ian … I saw the TV series Friday Night Lights … A gift from our kids. Loved it … Particularly the socioeconomic issues. I understood it was based on a book … Clearly it is worth reading.

          I do like Orwell, but don’t think I’ve read that. Will look it out.

  5. This made me think about sports books and the abundance of good ones that are being published. The best ones are usually as much about failure and losing as about the success cult. Sport is a tremendous subject for non fiction writing- as the true crime genre when practised responsibly. Orwell’s essay was published after a tour of Britain by a Russian soccer team where a lot of ill feeling seems to have resulted. In Orwell’s time nationalism was as much a distorting factor as money is today and sport had become “war minus the shooting”.

      • So glad to hear it Ian … Not that you’ve been “peely wally” (is that a Scottish term?) but that you are on the up.

        I’ve had a busy few months here with family health dramas and trips away that I’ve barely been keeping up, so it was only a couple of weeks ago that I started to worry about you. You never know in this internet world – has someone lost interest, are they busy, or has something happened to them?

    • Thanks Ian … I must say I immediately thought of the Australian novel Barracuda about an elite swimmer who “fails”.

      And good point re nationalism. Miller does touch on that, using the Olympic Games as an example but it’s not the only event, is it, where it comes into play.

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