In Defence of Bad Losers

Should the England Rugby Union team’s ‘manly tears’ and Lewis Hamilton’s politeness really make them ‘role models’?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

What could be worse than the media, politicians and assorted sermonisers trying to turn short-term English success in a couple of minority sports like Rugby Union and Formula One into a moral pageant for the entire British nation? Well, how about trying to use their ultimate defeats in the same way?

Since the England Rugby Union team lost its ‘world’ cup final to South Africa on Saturday, and Lewis Hamilton lost the Formula One championship the following day, the media have been full of stuff about how proud we should be of our ‘good losers’, how dignified the vanquished heroes were in defeat, what shining examples they thus set for the nation’s misguided youth, etc. It is almost as if contemporary British culture feels more comfortable with those sentiments than with vainglorious guff about winning.

Now, as regular readers will appreciate, we at spiked are always keen not to add to the general tide of miserabilism in society. So although I could not give a ruck about Rugby Union, and think that motor racing is full of grand prix, I would have been happy for the England rugger buggers to get excited about rucking and mauling one another, and for the petrolheads to enjoy chasing Hamilton up and down the pit-lanes. But they couldn’t leave it at that. They had to start lecturing the rest of us about the ‘lessons’ from these sports, trying to mobilise an emotionally correct bandwagon around them.

This was most explicit with the rugby world cup. As Lord Roy Hattersley pointed out in a rare moment of insight, Rugby Union is a minority middle-class sport that excites little public interest, and has only recently been on the front pages because the England team did surprisingly well for a couple of weeks. He said that something similar might happen if England did well at lacrosse, but a more pertinent example might have been ladies’ curling; remember how five million viewers sat up after midnight to watch the British team curling for gold at the Winter Olympics a few years back?

Yet suddenly Rugby Union has been held up not only as if it was ‘our’ national sport, but as a national moral exemplar. This represented a remarkable turnaround in image of a sort that the Tory Party can only dream of. Anybody who has been to university or even stood in a bar with rugger buggers may remember them as caricatures of boorish, braying, boring yahoos. The pictures of Princes William and Hooray ‘on the razz’ with the England team members after Saturday’s defeat suggested that not much has really changed there, although presumably their royal highnesses avoided singing some of the more delightful rugby songs I can dimly recall.

For the past few weeks, however, we have been told that England’s rugby players and supporters set an example to us all of how to work, play and behave. As Duleep Allirajah noted last week on spiked, much of this was simply an excuse to attack working-class football fans and players who don’t know their proper place (see A dirty tackle on the working classes). It is a sentiment made most explicit in a Landrover advert where one England rugby player’s dog cocks its leg against a round ball, and the pee ends up all over the shirt and head of a lairy working-class footballer. The ad claimed it was proudly supporting ‘England’s real passion’ – which presumably means a passion for pissing on the proles. Many football supporters might have been cheering for the rugby team, but while they acted as cannon fodder the rugger buggers were sneering at them. That did not stop the chief idiot at the English Football Association announcing that rugby could teach football a lesson in ‘decency’.

The remarkable thing was that losing that dire rugby final became a cue for even more such misplaced moralising, with British prime minister Gordon Brown announcing that the gallant losers had been ‘an inspiration to millions in our country’, and everybody banging on about how marvellous it was to see them losing ‘with dignity’, their eyes filled with ‘manly tears’, and ‘refusing to moan’ about the disallowed try. (They could safely leave that latter point to the media, despite the fact that only a blind tinpot patriot could deny the evidence of their own eyes by insisting the referee was wrong.)

On Sunday morning, as the players and princes were still sleeping off their hangovers, BBC 1 staged a televised studio debate about the lessons ‘we’ can learn from ‘our’ rugby team. It was generally agreed that the awesome, dignified, eloquent guys of the rugby team were far better role models for the nation’s youth than those uncouth footballers. One teacher insisted this was ‘not about class, it’s about education’ – ie, they were more likely to go to private schools. But it is true that these sentiments are more a modern form of moral snobbery than an old-fashioned money thing. After all, rich, flash footballers are definitely considered on the wrong side of the fence.

Unable to stomach more than a few minutes of this TV love-in, I turned on BBC Radio 2 to find the veteran Michael Parkinson and his guests churning out exactly the same points. Parky asked rhetorically whether we could imagine what would happen if such a controversial event had occurred in a football World Cup match. ‘They would have burned the stadium down!’ he concluded. Of course they would, Michael. That is after all just what happened after the ‘Hand of God’ incident in 1986, and the Zidane head-butt in last year’s World Cup final. Of course, there is far more popular anger and emotion around a big football match. It is because people care passionately about the beautiful game, whereas few really give a toss about Rugby Union.

Apart from the familiar snobbery, these arguments about the moral superiority of our ‘good losers’ also reflect much that is worst in the mood of contemporary society, embodying the sort of politically correct sentiments with which rugby might not normally be associated. We can spot the influence of the victim culture, which claims that suffering is a virtue, in the argument that losers are the real champions. And the influence of therapy culture, which suggests that people cannot cope without outside support, in the argument that sportspeople should act as role models setting an example off the pitch.

The trouble is that, back in the harsh no-hiding-place environment of top-level sport, there are still real winners and also-rans. As one American football coach famously put it, show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. It might be comforting for mothers to see a nice boy like Lewis Hamilton accepting his defeat in good grace. But to succeed in world-class sport, you need bad losers, those who are set apart from the rest because they care only about winning at all costs.

When it comes to a sporting hero, I’ll take a snarling Roy Keane over Jonny Wilkinson any day. But when it comes to role models for life, you can keep them all; I do not want my children to be shown the way to think or act by either a Wayne Rooney or a rugger bugger, thanks all the same.

It is possible to argue that the therapeutic culture of low expectations in our society is partly responsible for the relative lack of sporting success. Obviously, particular sporting contests like those of last weekend turn on individual mistakes and matters of centimetres. But we are raising the next generation of sportsmen and women in an environment where many in authority seem uncomfortable with cut-throat competition or ruthless ambition on the pitch as well as off it. When the emphasis is on how primary-school children are all stressed out by the pressures of being 11, it is little wonder that old-school football managers complain that they cannot give young players a bollocking for fear that they will crack up.

For whatever reason, British sportspeople do seem to find it hard to deal with relative success these days. The England rugby team never recovered from winning the 2003 world cup, and effectively went into a four-year slump until they found themselves underdogs and started fighting again in the latter stages of this year’s tournament. The England cricket team suffered a similar moral collapse after winning the 2005 Ashes series. Meanwhile, media and public reactions to sports teams swing from one emotional extreme to another, investing far too much in the outcome of sporting events – like rugby and motor racing – which few comprehend or care about.

Sport is not like real life, and the loss of a motor race or a rugby match does not have any direct moral lessons for society. Indeed the whole point about great sport is that it can take us out of ourselves and away from the everyday for a couple of hours. However, it is probably fair to say that a society that celebrates being good losers is unlikely to win many prizes for forging ahead off the pitch or the racetrack.

Meanwhile, back in rugby world, the Sun reports that a brutal encounter between Windsor Boy’s School and Eton has just ended with two of the ‘toffs’ being given a bit of a bashing. Nothing unusual there, experienced watchers might think. Except this time the Eton boys have apparently called in the police, and parents are considering legal action. These days, it seems, public school rugger buggers are victims, too.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. He is speaking at the session The new heresies at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Alex Standish argued that competitive sport has been chased out of schools. Duleep Allirajah labelled Wimbledon a ‘festival of self-flagellation’ and said the problem with England, at big sporting occasions, is that we want to win, but expect to lose. He looked at the patronising coverage of women’s football and praised Sunderland manager, Roy Keane, for refusing to participate in an open top bus parade when his team won promotion to the Premiership. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today