Gold, gold, gold. In the space of 45 magical minutes during one athletics session last Saturday, Team GB claimed the top of the Olympic podium on no less than three occasions. Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah were faster, stronger and higher than the rest and we basked in their glory. It felt so wonderful to be British. But paroxysms of national pride are only one ingredient of the feel-good factor of the Olympic Games.
This may be a somewhat British-biased rose-tinted perception, but it seems to me that the Games has evoked a shared sense of euphoria. If that is the case, then the Newtonian law of reciprocity (to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction) does not apply here. Well, not quite. Obviously, for every arm raised in triumphant salute, there was a face etched with disappointment. There were tears of rage, frustration and shattered expectation as well as tears of joy.
But if the winning and losing are both conducted with a modicum of grace, don’t the triumphs trump the disasters? If Olympic records continue to be broken and if heroic performances continue to inspire the next generation, then surely we move forwards, inch by inch, on our evolutionary track. Crucially, there has been almost universal appreciation of the feats of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt et al. We have seen approbation for athletic prowess transcending the narrow interests of individuals and individual nation states. Doesn’t that demonstrate that, at some level, consciously or subconsciously, most of us are on board with the idea of competition serving the common good? And aren’t we effectively acknowledging the benefits to humanity of the selfish pursuit of excellence? These things had been getting a bit of a bad press until the Olympics prompted us to reevaluate them. Are we getting over our “tall poppy syndrome”?
Obviously, there are economic, political and social connotations. People like Tony Blair and Boris Johnson are right when they defend free market principles and warn against taking vengeance on bankers. They are right to rail against increasing state intervention in the private sector. The principles of competition and the selfish pursuit of excellence deliver a hefty blow to the “prizes for all” culture. We should refocus on these things in our schools.
It’s a shift of emphasis. It does not mean societies will fall apart for want of altruistic glue. Obviously, no one wants a world where the weak and vulnerable are humiliated or abandoned. Embracing success does not preclude support and encouragement for those who fall short. But the Olympic spirit should inspire every group and every individual to strive for betterment, no matter how humble the context. After all, as American author Helen Keller wrote: “The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” We can all make a difference.
I don’t want to leave my best undone, so each time I post something on this blog, rest assured, dear reader, I’m striving for another PB.