So – to my great consternation and shock – the English football team has tumbled out of the World Cup without having won a single game. Those teams who did make it through include such giants of the sport as Algeria, Croatia and Switzerland. I hope that puts it in perspective.
Nobody is really surprised by this of course. Although many sports are British gifts to the world, English sporting culture has never really been the envy of it. I’ve watched the World Cup since I was in short trousers, and on no occasion has the English side looked capable of lifting the trophy. In tennis meanwhile, English players have made losing part of the national personality, and the pathetic refrain ‘Go on Tim’ an unofficial mantra for collective despair.
The conclusion is unavoidable. English culture simply doesn’t foster sporting excellence.
The oft-raised objections to this analysis fail to convince me. Andy Murray isn’t English for example; Rugby doesn’t count; and Formula One isn’t a sport.
In the field of athleticism, we simply don’t cut it, and I think I know why.
Competition, ruthlessly applied in theory and practice, is essential to producing champions. A respect for ‘winning’ and a dislike of ‘losing’ seems so obvious to our foreign counterparts, but less so here, where political correctness has forced us to exalt the runner-up and the victor equally.
Right after England lost to Uruguay, a colourful selection of excuses were offered by pundits in the UK media. The squad was too young and too inexperienced; it was too hot, the pitches weren’t as smooth as they could have been etc… Never was it countenanced (except by the reliably forthright Alan Hansen) that England simply hadn’t played as well as the other side; that they had simply failed to perform.
American culture (and I know I harp on too much about American superiority) is designed for winners. It is pitiless towards those who fail to make the grade. And that has consequences.
In an article for Psychology Today, academic Jim Taylor wrote that “America may be the most competitive country in the world (though China is rapidly catching up). Competitiveness lies at the heart of what has driven our country to become the best on Earth at so many things. Whether the space race, the arms race, the human genome race, or the rat race, we Americans have been determined to come in first in just about everything we do (including, seemingly, bad stuff like obesity, gun violence, and divorce).” (italics added).
Of course, as Dr Taylor notes, there are downsides to an atmosphere of one-upmanship, but not in relation to sport, which for over a thousand years has simply been a way of seeing who is best at doing something. Inequality (in effort, ability or ambition) must be celebrated – not feared – by any successful society.