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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Gym class exercises belief that, in life, winning is everything

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

Even now, a decade into graduate school, I wince when a new semester begins and I see the kids running on the athletic fields.

Lord, how I hated gym class.

From the humiliating showers to the bared ambitions, it was the most dreaded period of every school day.

Gym brings out the worst in girls, especially if they're strong. A friend could turn vicious if I missed a shot. Or worse yet, give me tips on where to stand and how to follow through — like I really cared.

Then there was the gym teacher. Old or young, she was swayed by no acts of goodness that did not involve hitting a ball. I could scribble my way through every other class, but gym just made me want to cut.

And cut I did. My favorite skill was dodging attendance, when we lined up in our smelly blue suits. In high school, the real sport became how to sneak off and smoke cigarettes in the bushes.

What a revelation to discover, years later, that I love sports. Just not team sports.

What they called "physical education," it turned out, was not so much about moving the body as what it takes to win. That's why gym was always about baseball and not, say, yoga: So kids would be trained to follow rules and put winning first, or pay the price with their peers.

Graduating to the games of adult life, I realize that what I hated about team sports was the ruthless competition. Sure, it can spur you to better performance — but only to the degree your self-worth is based on comparison to others.

Sports may be only a game, but it models a whole approach to dealing with others. "Us versus them" tells you who to help or hurt, based on arbitrary boundaries: our team, our company, our nation.

The positive aspect — love of one's teammates — just masks the ugly side of being out to get someone else.

And what comes of competition often doesn't do a thing for the greater good: Witness the thousands of repetitive, wasteful products all vying to outsell as No. 1.

The fact is, we are not all created equal in this world, with the same needs and abilities. Some people are too handicapped to compete. What answer does the competitive model have for them? The bench.

My idealism makes me want to believe that a world run by women would not be so hell-bent on competition. But any real-world gym class suggests this isn't so.

Women compete for jobs, status and men as ruthlessly as in a game of volleyball. This strikes me as being pointless in games where men still write the rules and decide on the prize.

Locked in a match of questionable rewards, the only viable alternative can be refusing to play — like the smart chick who finally bailed on "Hawai'i's Bachelor."

Because it isn't always strong to fight to win. Great achievements often come about because a square peg refuses to play by rules written by everyone else — like only the best can win.

This is not opting out because you hate to lose, but because you don't agree to value the prize, whether that's straight A's, a corner office or superpower status.

It always puzzled me that gym class rewarded a lust for points. Where's the victory in winning a game you were told to play?

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.