Search this Site:

Headmaster's Address

Win the Tea 2023

Starting with the sports report, and there were some fantastic individual and team performances at the weekend. Centuries were scored by both Noah T and Freya H in the 1st XI fixtures and 8 half centuries were scored by pupils in the 1st XI, 2nd XI, U15A and U14A teams. Congratulations to the U14A boys’ tennis team who won 4 matches at the invitational tournament at The Perse on Saturday, which resulted in them finishing as tournament winners.

I was unsure what to take as my theme today: the resignation from the House of Commons of the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the miraculous story of the rescue of four children found alive after surviving a plane crash and spending weeks fending for themselves in Colombia’s Amazon jungle, or the unprecedented abnormal surge in ocean temperature recorded in the North Atlantic this year.  Whilst I am in no doubt about what an existentially important issue that last one is – much more so than watching different factions of the Conservative Party tear lumps out of each other – I don’t feel that I am necessarily the right person to talk authoritatively about it.

Instead, as my theme for the day, I have chosen sportsmanship. Let me just say at the outset that this is a theme close to my heart.  There is a good friend of mine who worked at a School at which I used to teach. He and I ran a school cricket team together for many years. The colleague I am thinking of was a truly inspirational teacher, and he is as passionate about sport as anyone I have ever known.  What really interests him about sport, I think, is what it reveals about human character.  I remember talking to him about one of the pieces of advice he always told our team before they went out for a match. He would say to them: “Make sure you win the tea”.

An extraordinary thing to say, you might think. Surely the match itself is the important thing, not the tea in the middle or afterwards?

Well, what he meant, quite simply, was that, whether or not the result went against you, what was really important – more important than anything else – was how you conducted yourself, before, during and after.

So in this sense ‘the tea’ starts before the game, continues throughout the game, as well as after it.   It’s something we expect of all of you, regardless of the sport, the level, the opposition, and certainly regardless of the outcome of the match.

If you are fortunate enough to win, win with humility.  Try your very hardest not to lose, but if you do, lose with grace. Conduct yourself honourably throughout, and then mix with your opponents afterwards, host them when you are the home team, get to know them, break through the artificial barriers of them and us, of home and away teams.  Irrespective of whether you have won or lost the match, make sure you win the tea.

If you want to know what good sportsmanship looks like, here is just one famous example.  Probably most of you know about the achievements of the legendary Jesse Owens at the infamous Olympic Games in 1936, Hitler’s Olympics, at which he won four gold medals.

You may have heard about ‘sportswashing’ recently, in relation to football and golf.  Sportswashing is the use of sport to present a sanitized, friendlier version of a political regime or operation.  It’s nothing new, that’s for sure.  Regimes have been using sports to burnish their images or distract from their problematic behaviour for centuries, probably right back to the original Olympics, and the 1936 Olympics is a prominent example.  Hitler attended the opening ceremony and declared the games open. The Nazi government used the technology of early television for limited broadcasting. The 1936 games were the first to be televised, and it is estimated that 150,000 people watched the Olympics in 28 viewing rooms in the Berlin area.  Hitler’s hope and belief was that the 1936 Games would reveal the superiority of the so-called Aryan Race but the African American track and field star, Jesse Owens, had different ideas.  Amongst the four Gold Medals he won in Berlin was the blue riband event, the 100 metres.

He also won the 200 metres and was part of the of the US 4 x 100-metre relay team which won gold.  But the act of sportsmanship I wanted to mention relates to his other gold medal: in the long jump, where he eventually jumped 8.06 meters (26 feet 5 inches) to defeat German Carl Long, known as “Luz”, who won the silver medal.

But earlier in the competition, Long, who was that that time the European record-holder, had apparently shown an act of extraordinary sportsmanship towards Owens.

In the qualifying section, the heavy favourite and then world record holder in the long jump, Owens, was struggling, and facing potential elimination.  He had foot-faulted twice in his bid to qualify for the final.  With his American rival clearly worried, Germany’s Long, the European record holder, apparently offered Owens advice on how to adjust his run-up to make the qualifying distance.  Owens’ next jump was successful and he went on to win the gold medal.  Luz finished second, well behind Owens, with a jump of 7.87 metres, and was the first to congratulate Owens.  After the award ceremony, Jesse and Luz walked arm in arm through the Berlin Olympic Stadium.

Incidentally, it’s often claimed that Owens was snubbed by Hitler, but whilst that would be a convenient truth, it’s not clear that it’s true. But Owens did feel that he had been snubbed by someone: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A month after the Olympic Games, Owens told a crowd: “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was [Roosevelt] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Indeed, Roosevelt never publicly acknowledged Owens’ triumphs—or the triumphs of any of the 18 African Americans who competed at the Berlin Olympics. Only white Olympians were invited to the White House in 1936; the black Olympians who competed in Berlin were not recognized by the White House until 2016, when Pres. Barack Obama invited the athletes’ relatives to an event in celebration of their lives and accomplishments.

Back to 1936, and Owens would say of his friendship with Long: “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

Long was sternly spoken to by Nazi Party officials for the time he spent with Owens during the Games, but their friendship endured for the rest of Long’s life.   They corresponded for years after that, with Owens saying of his Olympic friendship with Long: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler…”

As for Long, he became a soldier in the Second World War, and his last letter to Owens was written in in 1942 or 1943, probably from North Africa where Luz was in the German Wehrmacht. It speaks powerfully of the lasting friendship they had – I’ll read some of it to you now:

“I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something so very important to me. It is: you go to Germany when this war is done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father.

Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth. 

Your brother,

Sometime after writing that letter, during the Allied invasion of Sicily in Italy, Long was mortally injured; he died 4 days later in a British military hospital and is buried in the war cemetery of Motta Sant’ Anastasia in Sicily. He was 30 years old.

As for Owens, he honoured that final request from his great friend.   In 1951 he returned to Germany and was able to find Luz’s son, Karl.  They would stay in contact, and when Karl got married, Jesse was the best man.

So, back to the theme of sportsmanship and winning the tea.  This, I admit, is a spectacularly high bar I have set you, but if you want an example of what that quality looks like at its best, you need look no further than the example of Jesse Owens and Luz Long.

As you go about your sports fixtures, and indeed your entire lives at The Leys and outside it: give it all you have. If you are good enough, if you are better than your opponent, then that will be enough to win. But when it turns out that your opponent is better, salute him or her.  Win with humility, lose with grace.  Or, as my old friend would have said: “Win the tea”.