OMG, GB! But we aren’t winners yet

It’s great that Brits have stopped whingeing and started winning, but we now need a winner’s mindset.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

A funny thing has happened to Britain. A nation of heroic losers, plucky also-rans, big-game chokers and penalty flops has acquired the knack of winning.

This sceptred isle, scarred by countless years of sporting hurt and humiliated in sports which we invented, has been gripped by gold-medal fever. Okay, we’re still penalty bottlers, but even the GB football team’s quarter-final exit can’t dampen our spirits. The British, it seems, are the new Australians. ‘What has HAPPENED to our country? We are we suddenly WINNING things?’ tweeted journalist Caitlin Moran. Her joyous disbelief perfectly captures the national mood.

But has the Olympic gold rush transformed our sporting culture at a stroke? Have the heroics of the Team GB’s gold medallists cured our deeply ingrained pessimism and established a winning mentality overnight? Look, don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve been cheering all our heroes over the line – Jess, Mo, Greg, the cyclists, the rowers, the canoeists. I was in the jubilant crowd on Henman Hill as Andy Murray reached the men’s singles final. I’ve been getting into sports I can barely comprehend. I was even briefly enthralled by the clay-pigeon shooting. Who’d have thunk it? So, yes, it’s great that the British have stopped whingeing and started winning. But that doesn’t mean we have developed the mindset of winners.

Let me explain. Firstly, there’s the ‘OMG’ factor. We’ve all relished the sweet taste of victory but our disbelief betrays the fact that we’re still arrivistes at this winning lark. Seasoned winners expect to win stuff. They celebrate, of course, but their celebrations are more understated. We, by contrast, behave like lottery winners. We’re in shock, unable to believe our luck. The after-party is likely to be a prolonged binge. Team GB medallists can expect to be showered with honours and paraded on open-top buses. That’s all fine and dandy, but at some point the lap of honour must stop and our medallists have to start asking themselves, ‘What more can I achieve?’.

Usain Bolt himself said he couldn’t truly be regarded as a legend until he had retained his 100 and 200 metre titles. I really hope that British medallists are not sated with their London 2012 medals. The mark of true champions is the ability to dominate for years, to build an aura of invincibility. This is what the British cyclists have done. They have retained their hunger and raised their game in order to keep winning. They’ve built a dynasty. They are feared by their rivals. They have become Olympian gods.

The post-race interviews with British athletes who haven’t delivered are another sign that forging a winning mindset is still a work in progress. Too many of our flops haven’t been gutted enough. We saw this rather too often in the aquatic centre where, let’s face it, British swimmers have underperformed. As the performance director of GB’s swimming team Michael Scott admitted: ‘We have had a lot of good swims at this meet but not enough great swims.’ GB swimmers reached 23 finals but only came away with three medals. You would have thought they’d be absolutely distraught but, time and again, our swimmers seemed, well, too cheerful. This was what they had been working towards for the past four years. It should have been the biggest moment of their careers. So, when they underachieved, why weren’t they devastated? ‘We’re just happy to be here’, seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

Thankfully, some British competitors have demonstrated how aspiring champions ought to take defeat – namely, not very well. Euan Burton was in tears after his first-round exit in the judo. ‘I can’t take any positives’, he said. ‘I feel like I’ve let myself down a bit. I feel like I’ve let my coaches down, anyone I’ve every trained with. I’ve let my mum, my dad and my brother down. I’ve been working for this for over a quarter of a century, so no, there’s no positives to be taken.’ Martyn Rooney was equally penitent after failing to make the 400 metres final. In an apology worthy of an Oscar ceremony, Rooney said: ‘I can only apologise to the people who have put four years into me… want to apologise to my girlfriend and my family – I haven’t been there for them. I’m really sorry to them. I’ve let myself down and I’ve let them down as well.’ If only some of GB’s other flops could demonstrate similar remorse.

While many athletes are happy with a medal of any hue, true champions simply refuse to accept second best. Zac Purchase was admirably inconsolable after taking a rowing silver. ‘I cannot imagine ever being able to derive any consolation from the race outcome’, wrote Purchase in the Guardian. ‘The whole point about sport is that you have winners and losers. It’s important for people to keep that in mind. Getting medals for taking part is not what it’s about; it’s all about getting medals for winning.’ Some might say that Purchase was too hard on himself, but I love his attitude. It’s a sign of how high the rowing team’s expectations are that second place isn’t good enough. Similarly, Christine Ohuruogu wasn’t satisfied with a consoling ‘Bless, didn’t she do well?’ after finishing second in the 400 metres final. She said she was ‘stunned’ and ‘heartbroken’ to have lost the race.

One of the abiding memories of the 2008 Beijing Games was Katherine Grainger sobbing on the podium after winning silver in the quadruple sculls. These were tears, not of joy, but of despair. She was distraught at being, in her words, ‘always the bridesmaid’. Grainger’s dogged refusal to accept second best was finally rewarded with gold last week. Hers is a shining example to all her compatriots. If Team GB wants to graduate from one-hit wonders to enduring champions, our competitors need to learn to hate coming second.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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