Competition
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Competition is about performance. It is about the fastest, highest, lowest, longest, shortest, biggest, smallest, or any other criterion that is easily grasped. By focusing on measurable criteria, competition has the tendency to turn a beautiful thing into something ugly. Runners failing to notice the stunning scenery they are racing through. Only seeing their watches in order to verify whether they are on schedule or have made 'progress' since the previous effort. Imagine a love competition, where being the fastest is the criterion for winning. Suppose you win by making love in 36,271 seconds, completely smashing the existing record. Congratulations! You are the winner! The achievement is something to be proud of and makes you really happy, doesn't it?

Flying apart together.To me, flying is about beauty. The beauty of nature, of discovery. The delight of playing a big clumsy bird that is learning to fly. Much to the amusement of the real birds out there. Quality, beauty being part of it, is not easily measured. You know what quality is, but you are at a loss of words when trying to identify it accurately. You just end up with a bunch of characteristics whose sum fails to capture the whole. You experience beauty, but end up with a string of clichés and platitudes when trying to describe it. Did you ever hear an art 'expert' trying to explain a splendid painting that doesn't need explaining? Or critics dissecting the beauty of a symphony? A horrible experience indeed. Quality can not be measured in objective terms. It is impossible to define strict rules for deciding what or who has the best quality. Without precise and objective rules, fair competition is out of the question. Anyone who has ever witnessed (the outcome of) a beauty contest probably agrees. Beauty is within us, not in a podium finish.

Nature has few rules and those that are there might even change during the game. That's when pilots complain about freaky air for example, while they should have adapted to the changing rules instead. The game itself resembles a free fight, rather than a soccer or tennis match. Anything goes, as long as it makes you win. Or more precisely, does not make you lose. Surviving is not about winning, it is about not being on the loosing end. I don't like fights, but a definitely prefer a natural free fight to an over-regulated life any time. It thrills me to find out the rules of an unknown location, trying to understand the (local) game. To analyse the situation and profit from it. To find the helping hand that mother nature reaches out to me, while at the same time avoiding her kicking free fight feet.

If I would try to describe the feelings that I am going through during a vol bivouac, then I would fall into the same trap as the art 'experts' dissecting a sculpture or symphony. As a matter of fact, I have deliberately stepped into this trap. One of the main drivers behind this site is showing the beauty of vol bivouac, of being close to nature. Hoping that my words night trigger you to experience the vol bivouac beauty by yourself, after which you can leave them behind.

All this might give you the impression that I hate competition, but that is not the case. I am a man. And like all men, nature has programmed me to compete. It is impossible to deny this genetic inheritance. I like to compete, no matter what I say to make you think I do not. But I prefer to compete with nature and myself only. The battle with yourself is much tougher than the one against your fellow pilots. You could win for example, when they have a bad day and give up. Nature never gives up. I might win a battle, but never the war. And that reassurance makes this competition safer for me than a regular one. When I realise that the chances of winning today's task will be (very) unlikely, I lower my ambitions accordingly. There is always tomorrow. There is always the opportunity to try again at the next task, since the competition has no end. Competition pilots that have fallen behind in the game however, tend to step up their effort in order not to lose their chances of winning. Often overstepping their safety margin in the process.

Competition kills. It kills pilots and it kills the fun. A nice illustration of that is what I call the Competition Cost Cycle. This cycle is bound to appears in all competitions, but especially those that rely on technology. Assuming all top pilots have more or less equal skills and thus equal chances of winning, a slightly better performing wing gives a winning advantage. But this performance increase usually comes at the price of higher risk, leading to more frequent and fatal accidents. When the costs counted in lives and limbs, equipment, grieve, etcetera, get too high, the 'risky' wing design will be forbidden in order to make competition safer. But this safety only lasts until a new design appears that is slightly faster, without surpassing the currently accepted risk level (i.e. by staying within the boiling frog / slippery slope limits). Most pilots will fly this new wing, in order to maintain/increase their chances of winning, and the cycle starts all over again. Competition is a race without end. That is exactly what has driven humankind forward up till now, programmed as we are by our genes.

Mostly it is not the wing design that is the problem here, but the pilot. Lacking adequate judgement, the pilot picks the wrong wing to win. During the 2010 season for example, I noticed a rapid and sudden rise of R10 wings in the air. They were a delight to see, when flown well that is. My impression was that four out of five pilots lacked the necessary capacity to fly such a wing. They were unable to exploit the full potential of the R10. Their results were often similar to pilots flying less performing (but less demanding) wings, yet they were running a considerably higher risk. The performance of my Aspen2 was in no way comparable, but I have frequently outflown R10 pilots that season. It wasn't the only homologated wing to do so, and neither was I the only pilot. There is no doubt that the top pilots in the game are able to handle a demanding wing like the R10, leaving us ordinary pilots with nothing but a short glimpse of their magnificence as they speed by. I have seen them flying and enjoyed the new routes they were taking, some of which belonged to the privileged domain of sailplanes up till then. The not so good pilots don't pose a problem either, since they won't even think of flying a machine that is too hot to handle for them. They realise that their first flight with such a wing, might be their last. It is the sub-top that poses the problem here. Thinking that a more performing wing will bridge the gap to victory, while they should have worked on their skills instead.

I noticed a significant number of reserve deployments in the British open at St.-André that same season. Far more than one would expect from conditions that, in my opinion, were well manageable and nothing unusual. They certainly shouldn't have posed any problem for pilots that were able to handle their wing and understood what they were doing. All turned out well, but it definitely showed that there was a problem. I stated as such, but it makes me sad to see that it took another year before action was taken. Only after pilots started dying in sufficient quantities, the issue was finally (partly) tackled. Sometimes I have the feeling that we are blinded by our love of flying. We don't see the danger, until it hits us. And we don't want to listen to the ones who do, until it is too late. Why didn't they listen? It could have saved lives. I wasn't the only Cassandra. It was evident that there was a problem, and there still is. Why do pilots need to die or get injured before we are prepared to tackle risky issues? During the Pre-Europeans in St.-André in 2011, pilots were only allowed to fly homologated wings. It seemed to make the competition safer, but certainly not less interesting. But for how long? The competition cost cycle has just restarted for another round.

Lacking the competition gene or only having a milder version of it, women seem better off. How else can I explain that women are usually absent among the top ranked pilots? Places 72, 80, 39, 28, and 42 in the Paragliding World Championships to be more precise, from 2010 through 2006 respectively. Or are these results just a statistical trickery that I fail to comprehend? Pick any other paragliding competition though, and you get similar results. The first woman is never the first. If I was a women, handicapped, black, grey haired, or otherwise belonged to a special made-up category, I would refuse the corresponding prize. I would compete for and except only the real prize, the one for being first. Independent of the colour of my skin, the colour of my hair, the kind genitals I have, the amount of limbs I lack, or any other special category other than the plain human one. I presumed that we had left behind the times when women were thought to be inferior to man. Apparently I was wrong. By accepting the women's prize, you endorse the idea that women are lesser pilots. Which somehow is still a more or less generally accepted idea in our flying community. By accepting you actively support the thought that women need a separate prize, just like little children, since they will never be able to compete with the men for the real prize. Which is completely bollocks. Of course they can compete, it is all in the mind. Unfortunately, competitions are set up in a manner that puts women at a disadvantage.

Paragliding is one of the few sports where men and women can battle on even grounds. I can't find any difference between the sexes that explains the difference in ranking, other than the competitive drive in men. It is not about their stronger physics, since you don't need a lot of strength to steer or accelerate a wing. Did you ever fly out of breath while piloting? It is not about the (presumed) more precise hand-eye coordination of men, since piloting precision usually drowns in the variations caused by the conditions anyway. It is not about their larger and more efficient wing size, since women can take along ballast to equal the score. It is not about being able to read a map or not, since simply following GPS directions will do fine. It is not about any other Venus-Mars related issue either. It is simply that when smelling an opportunity for victory, men are prepared to face higher risks in order to win. Often disproportionate risks, considering the stakes. And that is why they occupy the top places in the ranking. Not that this is necessarily a good thing. Why would you bet your life for fame? For admiration? For a shiny cup? Women seem life-preserving oriented. Men seem to be programmed to get themselves killed on the first occasion that gives them the opportunity to prove that they really are a man. Unfortunately for them, there are lots of opportunities. Riding a fast motorbike for example, having a pub fight, supporting a favourite soccer team, skiing downhill as fast as possible without the required control, climbing challenging mountain summits, or flying a paraglider in my case. It seems men aim to be winners in the shortest and fastest way possible, while women are winners in the long run. I have to remind myself now and then that life is about living, not about winning.

Women however, seem to have adopted some of the bad male habits in order to catch up with the winners. As a result, they have seen their average age and health declining. It reminds me of the cry for more women in top-management. The women that finally get there after a hard battle, have usually lost most of their female power. The power that could have made a real change in a selfish, greedy and career driven world. Instead, they have become a man in disguise. Like those female athletes from former East-Germany that were effortlessly sweeping up nearly all of the available medals at the time. Being morphed into men by doping, losing their feminine forms. I am wondering if they are still happy with their medals now. Trying to change top-management culture seems a better approach, more natural at least, than changing gender in order to adapt to the wrong version thereof. It won't be easy to create a culture where women would thrive without having to twist their origins, but I guess society would benefit from it. Would those financial crises of the last years have happened if we would have had a different, more diverse top-management? With a focus on merit for society as a whole, rather than just a (very) fortunate few? It seems like a too big challenge, unlikely to be realised soon. But we could start from the bottom up, with something a bit smaller. Why not start with changing the culture of paragliding competitions?

Why do men strive for status? Are we still at the monkey stage where success is measured by the size of your harem? By doing the undoable? Preferable doing it faster and bigger than your fellow men. Does it still make sense in today's society, so remote from nature, to have such primitive drives? And why in the world would anyone like to take the daily rat race with him when paragliding? Why does it make you feel good to have won the race? To have won the competition? To be the world champion? Will anyone remember that fact in, let us say, a century from now? Who won the downhill skiing gold medal at the 1952 Olympics? I don't know, you probably neither. I have to look it up. And now that I know, I still don't know. It is just a name. What I do know however, is that a little boy who really wanted to win the village downhill ski event and had trained for it accordingly, totally screwed up. His sister did not want to compete. She just wanted to ski and have fun. While she was having fun, she turned out to be the fastest and unintentionally won the race. As a former little boy, I can feel the rage and frustration of his defeat. I just hope that he has learned the right lessons from it, instead of desperately clinging on to his genetic inheritance.

Paragliding competitions are just an upscaled version of the village ski event for little children. There are no big prizes that could justify extreme risk taking, it is all about amusing yourself with a pleasant activity. About having fun with similar minded people. In order to experience the opposite site of the story, I helped out with a big international competition recently. I had fun helping the pilots having fun. It was a rewarding experience and I will do it again. Most pilots were indeed there for the fun, for the event. For flying together. I got on well with the pilots who knew it was just a game. Less so with the ones who didn't, or didn't want to know. If you compete for status, think twice. If you compete for fun, go for it! Just be honest with yourself. Are you really having fun, or are you just pretending to have fun? Try to be honest about your reasons for competing. No matter what competition you are in. During delicate moments in the air, I tend to ask myself whether I am (still) having fun. If the answer is negative, I will try to make the flight safer. If that doesn't make the fun come back, I will probably go for a landing or a break, or I might not launch at all to begin with.

Having found that invaluable freedom to fly, the ability to shake loose earth's chains for a little while, my imagination fails to comprehend why any pilot would voluntary lock himself in the chains of competition. Nobody but nature is going to tell me where, when and how to fly. Rather than the waypoints of a competition task, I will follow the magnificent vultures here in the southern Alps on a flying day. And I will follow my heart everyday. Follow yours.

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2011-11-14