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Why do we love to hate winners?

A couple of weekends ago saw quite the spectator sports extravaganza in our household. Between the Waste Management golf tournament, the Scotties curling playoffs, and the NFL Super Bowl, it was a sports lover’s dream Sunday.

My husband Ken and me at the Seniors' Games as competitors.

But one question lingered in my mind as I watched these elite athletes give it their all – why were so many folks openly hoping for the defeat of the repeat winners? According to the all-knowing and openly-opinionated followers of Facebook, curling champ Jennifer Jones and all-star quarterback Tom Brady certainly did not have the majority of viewers on their side.

I acknowledge that I often cheer for the underdogs, but I don’t do it by wishing the worst for the odds-on favourites. Yet it appears that some people would cheer for anyone except the repeat winners.

As one woman told me, “I hate Jennifer Jones.”

“You hate her? Have you ever met her? No…then why do you hate her?”

“Well, I can’t stand the way she tosses her hair and pats her leg every time she gets set to deliver a rock.”

Hmmm…well, I could see how that would be reason enough to dislike her. (Insert sarcasm here.) I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that most professional athletes have a set routine before performing a task. (More sarcasm.)

Somehow the fact that over the years Jones had solidified her acumen as a strategic skip and an amazing shot maker, did not seem to matter. She is exceptionally good at what she does and, therefore, deserving of scorn because she dares to still strive to be the very best.

I recall encountering this same attitude from some former students when it came to NHL superstars. One boy told me that he couldn’t stand Bobby Orr because the defenseman didn’t understand hockey and was a puck hog. I was dumbfounded! Bobby Orr? One of the greatest, if not the greatest hockey player of all time was being judged by a smart-alecky, wise-talking, know-it-all teenager. The same adolescent who, ironically, had his own little cocky victory dance whenever he managed to score a goal in midget hockey. It boggled the mind!

This same scene was played out again a few years later when another young lad informed me that he despised Wayne Gretzky. Why? Because, according to him, Gretzky thought he was pretty good. Well, I hated to break the news to the teenager but Gretzky did hold a few records – little things such as most career season goals, assists and hat tricks. Not to even mention that he was pure magic on ice and gave the game an imagination. (I was lucky enough to see Gretzky play as an Oiler and later as an LA King.)

But another student chimed in to voice her dissatisfaction with number 99. It seemed that her friend had attended an Oilers’ game and in the warm-up Gretzky turned and smiled at the friend as she tried to snap a photo. “Who did he think he was?” she spouted.

“Well,” I countered, “had he turned away he probably would have been dubbed a snob.” Apparently for the young hockey phenom, it was a no-win situation.

The truth is that most (not all) professional athletes are pretty humble about their extraordinary abilities. None moreso than Gretzky. Rick Reilly, who penned Gretzky’s autobiography, observed that getting the Great One to talk about his accomplishments was about as easy as pulling teeth from a hen. If Gretzky lacked one thing, it was an ego. Yet there were those who chose to ignore his remarkable talents, choosing to believe instead in their own warped opinions.

So here’s the thing – why do some folks love to hate winners? It’s really their loss, because while they search for flaws, they are missing out on some of the best talent that sports has to offer. We all have our favourites and we should cheer them on, but that doesn’t mean we can’t admire (and even admit to) the opponent’s skills, does it?