Don’t get me wrong, I hate the idea of “participation medals” as much as anyone else. It seems that there’s an unfortunate trend in today’s society to wrap children in cotton wool to protect them from the harsh reality that, yes, there are winners and there are losers in life. But does that warrant an abolition of silver and bronze medals at the Olympics? Does that really mean that winning gold is all that matters?
This was the opinion of commentator Piers Morgan in a column for the Daily Mail. Morgan unravelled the secret behind why Michael Phelps, the 6’4 American swimmer who is regarded by many as the “greatest Olympian of all time,” is consistently successful in his chosen sport.
Morgan argued that in addition to his physiological superiority, he also has the cultural backdrop to help propel him to success: Americans are only concerned with those who come first. They have no time for second or third place. Unlike Great Britain it seems, whose reporting of Tom Daley’s (and Dan Goodfellow’s, I haven’t forgotten about him!) bronze medal in the Men’s 10m synchronised diving was a tad overzealous.
In fairness, Morgan didn’t outwardly call for silver and bronze medals to be scrapped. However, as some of his readers rightly recognise, that is the ultimate aim of his beliefs.
It is admirable that Morgan praises the dedication of Michael Phelps who completely surpassed the training standards of his fellow competitors. At one point, Phelps reportedly went five years without a break in training, even for Christmas, birthdays or Thanksgiving.
“Hard work and commitment are values that we should be promoting among younger generations”
Hard work and commitment are values that we should be promoting among younger generations. However, the critical assumption that Morgan makes is that hard work corresponds to success in one’s chosen field. That may work for swimming, where the winner is evident to all – whoever finishes first – but it doesn’t work for sports such as gymnastics or synchronised diving, in which one’s success is hinged on the opinion of a group of judges. It doesn’t matter how many holiday breaks you have foregone; you have little control over the judges’ verdict.
Is it even true that one’s success in sport comes down to hard work? In events such as the 100m dash, each runner has done everything in his or her power to ensure that that they will be number one. Yet the outcome is determined by that marginal advantage, some would say a “genetic fluke,” which athletes have no control over.
Many athletes will agree that there is nothing to be embarrassed about in finishing second place to someone like Usain Bolt. We are all familiar with that memorable story of the small-statured David slaying the much larger Goliath. Yet I would hypothesise that even if David were to have lost, he would still be remembered to this very day for his courage, his fortitude and his determination. And we saw that in the Euro 2016, when Iceland and Wales were met with rapturous commendation for their achievements despite not placing first.
In reality, Morgan inadvertently touches upon a much deeper and more complicated problem that economists and political philosophers are familiar with: that of “equity” and “distribution.” In most modern economies, we don’t let the disabled and the poor die because they do not make enough money, which is the position of a “loser” from the viewpoint of capitalism. We provide mechanisms which give them an amiable standard of living.
Morgan’s advocacy of “winner takes all” only works in some contexts; in others, it’s much better to also award prizes to those who finish in second and third place as well as to remember those who, although came nowhere near, were noticeable by the defiance of their personal circumstances.