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.