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Two men

A young man gets up at 5.45am and eats a bowl of chopped-up apple and pine nuts, and a whey protein drink, like he does every morning. He gets changed into his training gear and leaves his home. He sets off for the training centre on the far side of the city, and he knows that if he goes quickly and catches the first train service, he can make it there in 1 hour and 12 minutes. He has made this journey every morning for the past 4 years, give or take a handful of exceptions for a national holiday or ill health.

He arrives at the training centre – a glorified leisure centre, run-down following a recent halt to Government funding – twenty minutes before the first employee usually arrives to open the centre, so that he can guarantee use of the only set of equipment for his training. He waits in the cold. He has stood outside this entrance over a thousand times, trying to focus on what he is going to work on when he gets inside. His fingers start to go numb.

The employee arrives and lets the man into the building. He work for three hours on the equipment, often repeating the same technique until he has it perfected, which can take months. Once he has isolated what he is doing wrong, he concentrates on correcting it. It is the only thing which occupies his mind day and night and he completely surrenders his body to this simple, narrow pursuit. He pushes his body to the brink of exhaustion day after day, until, after many months of training and competition, the skill is a matter of unconscious competence, a habit which he does not have to think about to achieve. What takes years for most people to master, he can now do without thinking.

His sole motivation, the daydream with which he occupies himself through all of this is the competition every four years. The level of dedication and training he has submitted himself to means that, in front of the world, he has a chance to compete with the best and show everyone what he personally can do. He has spent many years, especially the last four, saying ‘no’ to everything a man of his age usually does –traditional entertainment, normal food, drugs – to have his chance to demonstrate why he should be talked about, remarked upon, or remembered.

He travels thousands of miles to the competition, spending all the money he and his family have saved up over many years. After qualifying for the final round of the tournament, he is excited and confident of success. However, he doesn’t get anywhere near a medal-winning position in the finals as he completely fails to perform the technique he thought he had mastered when the pressure mounts. It is a glaring failure and ruins any chance of him challenging his rivals for honours.  The opposition finish far ahead of him and he finishes last, in 8th position. Then he goes home.

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Another man gets up at 11.16am in his comfortable flat in Kentish Town, or Westbourne Grove, or wherever. He is a writer – a sports writer – and one of the benefits of this job is that he can lie-in on most working days. As a writer, he is a dignified, voice of truth and superiority, at a position which requires intelligence and insight. He is respected through to the furthest depths of his middle class clique for his scathing and pithy rejections of the poor and incompetent performers who have the insolence to compete in front of him. His famous rejections of those who do not produce immediate excellence for his pleasure are as verbose as they are scathing.

One summer, this man is paid to eat pizza, drink beer and type derogatory remarks with pretentious vocabulary into Microsoft word, just like every year – except this time he will be in a different city. It has been four years since the last prestigious sporting tournament and so he is paid to go to this city and watch those who have trained for many years and then write about them. He yawns his way through a press release for the opening rounds before the final rounds take place. The winner is as expected, the defending champion from four years ago. But look at that man in 8th position, he thinks. He’s awful! How on earth is he so bad? His incompetence compared to the others is actually quite amusing.

When the writer returns to his London office, he sends the clip of the final round to his colleagues in the writing office and shares the video on Twitter. “That’s incredible,” says the writer. “It really is embarrassing for him. His technique is all wrong, he’s completely mistimed his performance and his mindset is obviously too cautious. He needs to learn how to perform on the big stage when the pressure is on. Someone needs to tell him this because he’ll never achieve anything like that”.

And the writer and his colleague laugh and go back to their desks and starts proudly typing away.

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