Where there are winners there are also losers.
Is this really what humankind is all about?
Last Saturday a young man by the name of Mohamed Muktar Jama Farah – ‘Mo’ to the majority of the world’s population – ran at the back of the pack for the first few laps of the men’s 10,000 metres final at the Rio Olympics. He accelerated, went into the lead, was overtaken, was tripped and fell over, picked himself up, ran back into the lead – and received a gold medal for his troubles.
Tremendous applause all round.
Yet it wasn’t the only applause of the night. There was another Mohammed and another Brit who received almost as much of an ovation as the “winner”.
The “losers”, the lapped runners, the two that finished “last” – namely Britain’s Ross Millington and Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed – were also given rapturous encouragement by those in the stadium and quite possibly those watching on television, if indeed it was covered by the TV crew.
It wasn’t out of pure sympathy that they were clapped on their final laps. It was because the crowd recognised some exceptional qualities in these men – determination, athleticism, success at getting to the Olympic final, persistence, resilience.
We are all too often led to believe that it’s all about winning, despite the old adage “it’s the taking part that matters”. Try telling that to a young person who hasn’t received as high a GCSE or A-level grade as others in their peer group. Win, win, win is what matters.
David Coleman famously yelled “And who cares who’s third? It doesn’t matter!” when commenting on David Hemery’s 400 metres hurdles win at the Olympics in 1968. Only it did matter because the bronze medal went to fellow Brit John Sherwood, and it should have mattered whether he was British or not.
One of the most heart-warming sights on Saturday night was seeing the Heptathlon women doing their victory lap – together, hand in hand, all 29 of them who finished the event. It absolutely didn’t matter who came third, or second or first. They were united in their success in competing in and completing a track and field endurance test. That was the celebration. That was the most important point of the nearly midnight hour, not who received the medals.
Nevertheless, there were some tweets immediately after the events on Saturday which said Jessica Ennis-Hill had “missed out on gold”. She had “lost” the gold medal. (Fact is that her gold medal is probably back in Sheffield with the son that she had in between achieving gold and silver over a four-year period. Quite a feat in anyone’s book). She hadn’t lost at all. She’s won in ways far more measurable than the colour of her metal on a day in August.
In a place like Brazil, as in so many countries – where the polarity between rich and poor, winners and losers is so apparent – you wonder why and how we allow such massive inequality and polarisation to continue. It’s inhumane and abhorrent, and yet it’s the Mo Farah’s of this world, not the Mohammed Ahmed’s, that will be remembered (the one who finished “last” in case you’ve already forgotten his name).
And that’s not to take anything away from Farah and what he’s achieved. It too is inspirational. He is inspirational.
He is a winner but so too are the many who didn’t receive gold.
It’s not unambitious or less aspirational to applaud the “losers”. It’s humane, and it’s something we lose sight of on a daily basis.
The shopkeeper is all too frequently ignored where the banker is recognised – for what? The lawyer or the doctor is given higher status than the plumber or the nurse, though all do essential and important jobs. The A-graders are praised and the E-Graders are consoled, and yet there are plenty of times when the E-Grader goes on to achieve far more than those with higher test results.
Our world needs rebalancing.
In this Olympic time when the world comes together for a short while, maybe this is something that should be remembered – that we applaud all who try, all who participate, all who come together to celebrate the best of human values as well as personal achievement.
And we applaud every participant, not just the winners.