The gong show where everyone’s a winner

There’s a lot wrong with the UK honours system, but dishing out a title to every gold medallist would demean it further.

Duleep Allirajah

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Should all Britain’s Olympic champions be rewarded with gongs? A senior Whitehall mandarin has ruffled a few feathers by suggesting that British medallists will not automatically be decorated in the New Year’s honours list. Does this mean no knighthood for Wiggo the Modfather? No ‘Arise, Sir Mo’? No damehood for Our Jess? Whether you love or loathe the honours system, I don’t think that gongs should be scattered like confetti. Why? Because premature decoration is an ailment that only afflicts nations starved of sporting success.

The gong controversy was sparked by Jeremy Stephens, permanent secretary at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who said that there would be no ‘automatic’ gongs for Team GB’s gold medallists. Instead, the newly established independent honours committee would assess an athlete’s ‘contribution over a career and a lifetime’. Speaking to the BBC, Stephens said: ‘I don’t think they will in any way be under-valuing sporting achievement but they will be looking – like elsewhere in the honours system – to make sure it is not just an automatic gong but really recognises and rewards sustained effort and contribution and putting something back.’ Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson suggested that only ‘one or two’ gold medallists would be decorated because of the new quota system in operation. Downing Street was quick to issue a rapid rebuttal, denying that any gong quotas existed. ‘Honours are awarded on merit, not according to quotas’, said the prime minister’s spokesman.

Invariably, some have demanded gongs for all 43 British gold medallists. ‘Every single gold medallist has achieved both objectives. They have shown a lifetime of commitment and inspired a generation. They all deserve recognition’, said Lord Moynihan, the outgoing chair of the British Olympic Association. His sentiments were echoed by Boris Johnson. ‘The Mayor would argue that the courage, skill and sheer determination that propelled our heroes to gold in the first place, coupled with the immeasurable legacy their stellar performances have brought to millions, more than demonstrates they’ve put something back’, said a spokesman for the London Mayor. Listen, of course the slogan ‘inspire a generation’ is vacuous and means whatever you want it to. And maybe I’m nitpicking. But isn’t it a bit early to assess whether a generation has been inspired? It’s only two weeks since the Olympic flame was extinguished.

The new honours-criteria appear to have been established in response to widespread criticism that gongs had been given out too cheaply in recent years. The 2003 World Cup-winning England rugby team and the entire 2005 Ashes winning squad were decorated. Even bit-part player Paul Collingwood, who appeared in one test match and scored just 17 runs in two innings, was awarded an MBE. Shane Warne famously ridiculed Collingwood, saying: ‘You got an MBE, right? For scoring seven at the Oval? That’s embarrassing.’ The premature decoration of the victorious Ashes squad was a symptom of the fact that the Brits have had so little to cheer about over the years. The old imperial myth of British sporting invincibility had long been shattered. Our contemporary sporting narrative is one of missed penalties, self-deprecating pizza commercials and ’30 years of hurt’. Little wonder that rare British sporting successes are somewhat over-celebrated.

What’s wrong with giving awards to sporting champions? I think there are several problems with automatic gongs. Firstly, I think assessing the magnitude of any achievement requires a perspective that only the passage of time can provide. Jonathan Edwards’ triple-jump world record appears more remarkable today than in 1995 precisely because it has stood for 17 years. With hindsight, we might have allowed a bit more time to pass before decorating that 2005 Ashes squad. The Aussies had dominated international cricket for a decade. Michael Vaughan’s team had, by contrast, only regained the Ashes. Beating the old enemy was hugely enjoyable but it was just one series of test cricket. The true measure of greatness is the ability to keep on winning, to dominate over a sustained period of time. Honouring cricketers, some of whom were starting their international careers, implies that their job was done, that there was nothing more to achieve. It is surely more fitting to recognise sporting achievement towards the end of someone’s career. Sir Geoff Hurst received his MBE at the fag end of his football career in 1975 and wasn’t knighted until 1998 – 32 years after winning the World Cup.

A second problem with bestowing honours prematurely is that it can foster complacency. It’s no surprise that the England team suffered a five-nil series whitewash when they toured Australia the year after their Ashes triumph. The hunger to win was clearly blunted. Roy Keane, never a man to wallow in success, was scathing about some of his Manchester United team-mates after they had won the treble in 1999. ‘I have seen United players getting complacent, thinking they’ve done it all and getting carried away by a bit of success’, said Keane.

In any event, in the grand scheme of things, winning an Olympic gold medal is arguably a far more valuable prize than a gong. As Tim Foster, a rowing gold medallist at Sydney put it: ‘Personally I think the reward is the gold medal in sport.’ Frankly, if I won an Olympic gold I wouldn’t lose any sleep over being overlooked for an MBE. But whether or not you agree with the honours system, it reflects how our society regards sporting achievement. And it is the value we attach to such accomplishments which, to me, matter more than the gongs themselves. The indiscriminate ‘all must have prizes’ approach not only diminishes the value of gongs; more importantly, it devalues exceptional sporting achievement.

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

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