The Nationwide Youth Games (Bundesjugendspiele) are a 95-year-old annual tradition here in Germany wherein students ages 6 to 16 spend a day competing against each other in track and field, swimming and gymnastics. The total scores are read off in a ceremony before the entire school, and those who accumulate a certain number of points are awarded either a “certificate of victory” or a “certificate of honor.” Since 1991, “certificates of participation” have been handed out to the rest of the students.
After her son came home sobbing at having received a mere certificate of participation two weeks ago, journalist Christine Finke started an online petition to put an end to the Games. She explains on her blog:
I’m doing this for all the children who feel sick to their stomach the night before the Nationwide Youth Games, for those who wish they could disappear into the ground during the Games, and for those who want to burst into tears during the awards ceremony… Sports should be fun and make you feel good about your body. But the Nationwide Youth Games are founded on grading: on the upgrading and degrading of some at the expense of others’.
She dismisses the Games as a relic of the Nazi era, and while the original Reich Games preceded Hitler, founder Carl Diem did go on to be active member of the regime who instrumentalized the Games as propaganda for the Nazi obsession with bodily perfection. Finke points to the Nazi-like language of her critics on Twitter: “Our children shouldn’t be allowed to turn into sissies.” Indeed, mottoes such as Only the strong survive commonly found in sports culture in the U.S. and other countries are not taken lightly here in Germany, where sick and disabled citizens were murdered in mass numbers less than a century ago.
As a semi-disabled kid, I had plenty of physical limitations, but, like most kids, I enjoyed the sports that I could play fairly well (baseball, tennis, jump rope) and I quickly got bored with those that put me at the bottom of the class (basketball, football, soccer). Due to the vulnerability of the narrow achondroplastic spinal column, I wasn’t ever allowed to participate in gymnastics, and contact sports were forbidden after the age of 10 when my peers began to tower over me. I countered the feelings of exclusion with feelings of pride for holding the pool record for staying underwater (1 minute 15 seconds), and for surpassing everyone in the joint flexibility tests. But what about the kids whose bodies ensure that they will never surpass anyone else in any competition? The best advice I ever got came from my primary school physical education teacher: “If you had fun, you won.”
But then came adolescence, and with the onset of puberty, the body suddenly is no longer merely something that gets you from place to place. It becomes an object you are expected to sell to others in the brutal competition of dating and mating. It’s no wonder that an almost debilitating self-consciousness encompasses so many, whether in the form of sitting out of sports, refusing to ever dance or, in extreme cases, developing disordered eating habits.
I asked adult German friends how they felt about the Games. “It is the most humiliating memory I have from school!” one responded.
“It’s more likely to teach people to stay far, far away from sports for the rest of their lives, rather than inspire them to be more physically active,” argued one mother.
“Ach, it wasn’t humiliating,” insisted one man. “It was boring. It was all about skipping out to go smoke cigarettes while the super-athletes had their fun.”
“Exactly!” chimed another. “No one cared about it except the ones who won everything.”
I spent my high school years as the scorekeeper for the girls’ volleyball team at the urging of one of the two coaches, whom I both admired greatly. Throughout three years of volleyball games, I witnessed edifying examples of cooperation and self-confidence, and I witnessed a lot of childishness and borderline cruelty from overemotional adults as well as teens.
From that time on, I’ve generally viewed competitive sports the same way most people view rodeos or yodeling clubs – i.e., good for you if you derive joy from that sort of thing, but the competitions and the medals say nothing to me about whether or not you’re a lovely person.
Of course athletic achievement can signify important life skills like self-discipline and team work, as a recent Michigan State University study has found. But sports are not necessary for developing those skills. Self-discipline can also be demonstrated by reading two books a week or vowing to learn a foreign language and actually doing it. Tolerance, self-confidence and decisiveness has been shown to increase among students who study abroad. Team work can be learned from playing in a band. Or, as LeVar Burton taught us on Reading Rainbow, an aerobics-inspired dance troupe.
In arguing to keep the Games, physical education teacher Günter Stibbe says, “Sports are brutal, of course. But students have to learn how to deal with humiliation.”
Indeed, narcissism is characterized not just by excessive bragging but also by reacting badly to criticism or failure. Performing poorly in sports—or in any field—can be an opportunity to learn to accept all the moments in life when you won’t be seen as special. But the idea that the body is only worth what it can do is deleterious. And too many educators fail to teach students the dangers of being too competitive and fearing weakness.
The heavier burden may in fact fall on those who come out on top in high school and risk later panicking when they learn that the big wide world doesn’t really care about how many points they accrued in the discus throw back when they were 16. Both the losers and the winners would benefit from learning that athletic competitions in youth are no more important than rodeos or yodeling competitions at any time in your life. After all, points and medals are no indication of whether or not you’ll know how to pursue healthy relationships, be a responsible member of your family and community, or find a fulfilling career. Those who heavily brag on into adulthood about how hard they just worked out down at the gym—or how many books they read, or how much they earn—usually appear to be compensating.
This is perhaps why Stibbe criticizes the tradition of reading of the scores in front of the whole school as “pedagogically irresponsible.”
But in Der Spiegel’s online survey, there is no option for arguing for the Games on the grounds of sportsmanship and accepting one’s limitations. The two arguments to click on to support the tradition are “For God’s sake! It was the only thing I was ever good at in school!” and “What else would we do with our crumbling race tracks?” The majority of the 57,000+ respondents chose the latter.