Winners and Losers

Like most of the population I have been caught up in Olympic fever since last weekend’s spectacular and bizarre opening ceremony. I grew up on Olympic dreams and one of my boyhood heroes was the Australian distance runner Ron Clarke. The games have changed dramatically over the years of course, and nowadays stories of corruption, corporate greed and political manipulation dominate the headlines as much as sporting achievement. It has been interesting to follow events with one eye on my Twitter stream, where commentators are split roughly down the middle between those who are fanatically enthusiastic and those who are pretty cynical about sport in general, and the Olympics in particular.

The BBC’s animated Olympics trailer. One of the more inventive products of London 2012.

There is one question though which intrigues me more than any other, and I think it applies as much to education as it does to sport. I was listening to BBC Radio 4 when I heard the UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt say something along the lines of – and I paraphrase since I can’t remember his exact words – ‘Sport is brutal. There are only winners and losers.’ My immediate reaction was ‘So anyone who ‘wins’ a silver medal is a loser’? The same question came back to me as I watched the delight on the faces of the British men’s gymnastics team receiving their bronze medals yesterday. Here were five young men, honest, modest and very unassuming if televisual appearances were anything to go by, who had dedicated endless hours of hard work to perfecting their hugely complex and balletic routines, and here was the payback. The recognition. The reward. Who would have dared describe them as ‘losers’?

The previous evening, the swimmer Rebecca Adlington was also winning a bronze medal, significantly in a faster time than she swam to win the gold in Bejing four years ago. Was she a winner this time around, or just one of the losers? I think by now you know my answer to the question, and the key factor for me is in the idea of improvement, of constant striving for that personal best. In education, as in sport, there are those who scoff at the notion that young people can all be winners. Perhaps their own experiences have taught them that this is how it has to be. You’ll recognise them: they are the ones who talk about ‘bright kids’ and ‘stupid kids’, who believe that intelligence is fixed and can’t be improved, who like tests which ‘separate the sheep from the goats’ because real life is like that. When you meet them – and you will – don’t nod politely in agreement. Put up a challenge. We are all learning, some at a faster pace than others.

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4 thoughts on “Winners and Losers

  1. As a fan of language I have been fascinated by the tone of the coverage of the elections. It does appear that someone in the BBC has pointed out that there will be those watching who don’t usually watch sport and so they should make the presentation more accessible. This has led to Heat magazine style reporting at times with black and white use of language.
    This means that the sports news is either of a funereal or ecstatic tone with no shades in between. Not only is this poor journalism and lazy linguistically, it further plays to the issue you have identified.

    • I wonder if you meant ‘Olympics’ rather than ‘elections’ Bill, but the same principle applies! Another result of this kind of simplistic reporting of course is that it puts enormous pressure on athletes to win medals, even when all the evidence points to it being an unlikely outcome. It wouldn’t do any of them any harm to go and read Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’.

  2. Something else that has struck me: How long until there is a call for some form of Inquiry into Team GB’s performance (or lack of it?). I’ve already heard talk of the decisions made about funding having gone where it would have most impact… and the thing that strikes me so hard about this is that, when the inevitable inquest begins, everyone, and I mean everyone, will forget the basic principle on which the Olympics were founded:

    L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.
    The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
    — Pierre de Coubertin

    This is as true for education as it is for the Olympics, yet we all become so convinced of the necessity to ‘win’ or to ‘pass’ that we forget that the important thing is what we have achieved on the journey.

    The single minded emphasis on ‘results’ – be they Gold medals or Highers – diminishes us as human beings… because these results are ultimately irrelevant. They will be surpassed in the next games, the next exams, the next set of business results… all that really matters, is what we learned on the way.

    As a final point, I love the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger — How much better than a result-centric Fastest, Highest, Strongest. How often do we apply that thought when the results come out?

    • Agree completely Neil. I think we have all experienced the wrong-headed thinking which led to an obsession with targets in education, and thankfully we are beginning to see a retreat from that position. By coincidence, Kenny Pieper has written an excellent blogpost this week on the damage which can be done in schools by focusing too narrowly on exam results.
      http://justtryingtobebetter.com/2012/07/29/runaround/

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