After a bit of concern in the British press last week about our earlier lack of gold medals, the national mood seems to have swung very rapidly towards pride and joy in our achievements at the Olympics.
I do think the pride is justified – for a small if crowded island, this has been a terrific performance and it’s been great to see that we can fight above our weight in sporting competitions with other countries as well as warring with them (thinking about frequency rather than success rates necessarily here).
But to me the whole tone of the recent press coverage is rather unfortunate really. I’d been trying to use the Olympics to reinforce to my daughters the importance of taking part in sports and other competitions rather than just winning and this argument has been blow out of the water by the press focus on gold medals (even silver has received a bit of a sniffy treatment at times).
And now even the UK government is on the band wagon with Jeremy Hunt performing another government U-turn (on practice if not policy) by arguing for an increase in the amount of physical education in the UK’s schools. David Cameron in particular wants to see a focus on competitive sports which is a fairly obvious suggestion from a Conservative politician with a deep belief in the power of competition honed no doubt from his own experience at Eton.
But I’m not so sure this is what is needed by the country. I’ll share two experiences with you to try to explain why not.
1. One of my favourite competitions this week was the race walk. Actually I think it’s a pretty stupid form of sports and hate to think what it does to the competitors’ knees. But after sitting at the back of the Olympic park, Wembley and Excel stadiums it was great to be so close to the competitors. And the Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin clearly deserved his victory. But actually it wasn’t him who received the most applause (we were supporting him because we’ve got a special connection with Russia but I didn’t see many others cheering for him). The people who did get the most support were:
- The Australian Jared Tallent for coming out of the pack close to the end to take silver
- Spain’s Benjamin Sanchez for completing after nearly collapsing with just a couple of rounds to go.
- The UK’s Dominic King who came in last.
Our support for Sanchez and King in particular had nothing to do with competition – it was simply their personal achievement that we valued (their taking part, even if they never had a chance of gold).
2. Taking the train into London has been am amazingly positive experience over the last couple of weeks – firstly because there has been less people on the normally over-packed trained, but mainly because most people have been happy, courteous and have actually been talking to each other.
It’s a big shift from the normal atmosphere on the trains and I think one of the big factors has been that there’s been more support and LESS competition.
I first noted this on the way back from one of my trips into London last week. What normally happens as we get towards our station is that people stand up and move towards the door a couple of minutes before we arrive. In fact on a crowded station the departure of the train from the preceding station is often the signal for people to stand up and jostle each other into position. The ‘winner’ of this informal little competition can then stand in the middle of the double doors blocking anybody else from exiting until they have done so. I find it all very sad so it’s been great to see it NOT happening and I’d love to see an ongoing reduction in the amount of competition.
So I agree with Seb Coe that we need to focus now on capturing the feel-good factor from the games, but I’m less sure that requires more competitive sports. I’d suggest the country’s kids can gain just as much out of Indian dancing as they can through football or boxing.
I also think businesses might benefit from switching their focus from competition to achievement too. It might not make us any richer but we’d all be a lot happier – all of the time.