By Christopher Cudworth
It’s probably not a word most of us think about all that much. So it helps to look at the definition of the world to know who your rivals are, and why they might be important to you.
1. A person who is competing for the same object or goal as another, or who tries to outdo another; competitor.
2. A person or thing that is in a position to dispute another’s preeminence or superiority; a stadium without a rival.
If you participate in a competitive sport, rivals are potentially all around you. Every person who steps to the line in a running race is a rival. Every rider who rolls his bike in the first few moments is a rival. Rivalry is the core of competition. We don’t always choose our rivals, but sometimes we make them.
Rivalry grows through familiarity. It breeds contempt. If you compete week after week against another person, the pressure to beat them builds. You become “true” rivals rather than circumstantial rivals. Most athletes develop these sort of rivalries on their own. Sometimes we choose traits about our rivals that we do not like. It can be so simple and even childish. A rival may run with a gait we find ridiculous. Or a fellow rider might cut us off in a turn on a criterium. Suddenly we find that glimmer of opposition within us. It can even grow to a hatred of sorts. All it takes are a few words from our potential rival to flare the rivalry to full on competitive war. People are like that. We’re all like that in some way.
Some rivalries are part of tradition with teams or programs. Your “biggest rival” in high school cross country or track might be a team that is consistently good enough to beat you. So coaches use that rivalry to motivate the team to success. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Otherwise the rivalry fades. It would seem you cannot be rivals with someone you defeat all the time.
Except that’s not exactly true. Glance again at that second definition for the word “rival.” A rival can be someone you simply perceive as a threat to your superiority. That kind of rivalry can fester and grow into something else entirely. It can even poison an entire society, leading to hatred and class or racial wars.
For example when slavery was still “legal” in America (morally one must question even that phrase) there were people whose greatest fears were that slaves would someday be free. Why? Because in some areas of the country they outnumbered even the whites. So the rivalry some whites felt against black people was one of fearful control. Deep down people recognized that injustice might have payback some day.
Those kinds of rivalries drive most of the world’s politics. Nationalism springs from such rivalries. Fear of communism. Fear of Muslim terrorism. Fear of Iran. Or North Korea. Or China. Or Russia. Or AIDS in Africa. We project our ignorance on those we fear.
Fear of homosexuals. Fear of women. Fear of liberals. Fear of conservatives. Fear, fear, fear. Our rivals almost always seem to come from the seat of fear.
We’re afraid of being defeated. Of getting beat in the race. Because it would reflect badly somehow on our own self image. That kind of rivalry is dysfunctional in the end, because it cannot proceed to any sort of permanent confidence.
There is another way to conceive of our rivalries, and conquer our fears. We can displace our fears, for example, replacing them with faith. 2 Timothy 4:7: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
The healthier kind of competition is when we regard our rivals with respect, even admiration. That’s a harder kind of rivalry to achieve, because the competitive strain we rely upon to motivate ourselves is not so easily grasped if we aren’t motivated ourselves to hatred, fear or dislike for our so-called enemies.
One might ask: If we respect our rivals too much, where is the motivation to beat them?
But that’s just the point. We can only make ourselves better people through healthy competition by respecting our rivals enough to want to beat them for the better reason that competition really can bring out the best in us, not just the worst.
To defeat your rival then results in a healthier response, that you know your rival may again defeat you someday. But that’s okay. You win some, you lose some. Even great champions get beat once in a while. The difference is they do not let it undermine their own competitive sanctity. They don’t let it eat away the part of themselves that respects the nature of competition. They let the game be the game, competing fiercely on the court, the playing field or the road. They might even obsess about beating their opponent when not in competition. All that is fair and good. But when the competition is over, great champions also realize that without their rivals, they really are nothing.
But that is not to say that rivalries never get heated, or that they shouldn’t. When great teams or great individuals clash, it excites the human mind. That is true of great civilizations too. Who does not like to read of world history when great armies meet? The Super Bowl is a giant competition in the minds of many people, but it is not always the result of a rivalry. We really like it when it is, of course. Old rivalries make things more interesting. There is history to the conflict.
Yet there is much to learn even from rivalries that seem one sided. Colonel Harry Summers once got into a conversation with a Vietnamese colonel name Tu. The American officer boldly stated, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.”
To which Tu replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”
Learning from our rivalries is often not something we can afford to do in the heat of battle. We engage “the enemy” on many fronts; our personal goals, the pace of the day, through pain and sacrifice and motivation in training. It may be years later that we grow to appreciate that our so-called enemy had similar motivations to us. That is one of the tarsnakes of competition. Like the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Rivals as friends
You may even realize that your best friends are your biggest rivals. I always counseled my kids before they grew up that it was not your enemies in school that you had to watch, but your friends. “Even your friends like to think they have power over you,” I advised. “That doesn’t mean you can’t like or appreciate them. You simply need to remember that even your friends don’t always have your best interests in mind.”
You could call that a cynical take on life if you like. But like it or not, it is true. If your best friends are on the same team as you, they still want to beat you. Human nature is not always pure and clean. Friends are not above undermining your efforts in some way, or seeking competitive advantage for themselves. It happens on the playing field and in competition. That’s the nature of the game. We compete with everyone. Even our friends.
Which illustrates the reasons why our biggest rivals sometimes become loyal friends in the end. Often the purest kind of relationship is one forged in competition. You see your rival coming. You know what they want. They want to win. And having competed in that mode long enough, you begin to see that is enough to admire in another person.
Working it out
So when you set out on another training day, it is wise to think about the reasons why your life is full of rivalries. The forces of evolution are deeply wired within us, and competition is a large component of that evolutionary history. But a deep strain of altruism also runs in our biological makeup.
Which means the forces of faith and hope and love are interwoven with those strong strands of competition and rivalry. Our moral values and our desire for peace and social cooperation also stem from such DNA, and our religions too.
So here is the irony, of sorts, in all of this. We have developed the social tools to help us manage or social rivalries. Our religions and the practical solutions of secular humanism all grapple with how to get along. Yet rather than become a collaborative force for good, we find science and religion fixed in needlessly bitter rivalry. We find political conservatives blaming liberals for the ills of society. And liberals blaming conservatives for ruining the environment and allowing economic chaos through de-regulation. On and on we go.
We simply need to understand our so-called rivals so much better. We need to understand that, as Albert Einstein once said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Needless rivalry. That’s what it’s all about.
Running and riding can be key to revelation
That means we should learn from our chosen fields of competition in order to grapple with the unchosen ones. Once we realize we can compete with our rivals without producing permanent hatred, there is hope in the world. Running and riding can be the proving grounds for that hope. It already has done much for the world. The fields of competition have shown that human equality is celebrated when people get together to compete. Jesse Owens showing Hitler a thing or two is just such an example.
So go run and ride. In rivalry. And in peace. You’re doing good for the world, even if you don’t always feel like it. Run on. Ride on. There goes inspiration to make the world a better place.