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Do the British really hate winners and love losers? UK Attitudes to Competitive Sport

Updated on July 1, 2009

The cliché that British people don’t like winners is often repeated but rarely examined. In my experience, it is not so much that we dislike winners and worship losers; it is more that we consider winning and losing to be a side issue. When British tennis star Andy Murray brushes opponents aside in the Wimbledon rounds, for example, the crowd is subdued. When he blunders his way through five set epics, we’re enthralled. The reason is of course the value we place upon struggle. Grit and determination is what counts; obvious physical and technical superiority is, well, unbritish.

Likewise in boxing, when Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe were both winners, Hatton was by far the more popular figure. Calzaghe often dominated opponents with his incredible work rate, fitness and technical skills. Hatton preferred to walk through his opponents, taking two punches in order to land one, as Sir Henry Cooper put it. To be clear, Hatton was popular in victory; his defeats to Floyd Mayweather Jnr. And Manny Pacquiao didn’t make him the much-loved figure he remains today. He was already an icon to his fans. Calzaghe - incredulous at his relative obscurity until the last year or two of his career - seemed to always have to remind everyone of his achievements.

A few more examples should suffice. Daley Thompson, the world’s greatest athlete for two consecutive Olympic Games, was missed off a shortlist for a national poll of our greatest Olympians. Kelly Holmes and Paula Radcliffe, having both suffered the agony of defeat in public on many occasions, have seen their national profiles soar. Our 2008 Olympic cycling team, which dominated the event in Beijing, returned as heroes. However, countless columns and articles referred to the low wages, tough lifestyles and sacrifices the noble riders had to make – in contrast with the prima donnas of English soccer’s Premier League (boo!). What seemed a walk in the park to everyone else became another British story of struggle against the odds.

So, is this just sentimentality? Perhaps. Is it irrational? I think not. Rationality comes in many forms. There are two concepts we can borrow from Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology. First, “instrumental rationality” is the pursuit of an end using the most efficient means. This is what wins races, matches and tournaments. For example, for track legend Michael Johnson, running an even-paced 400m race is the best way to run a fast time. It worked for him, after all. So when his BBC co-commentators praised the “gutsy” late surge of Christine Ohuruogu in her 2006 Commonwealth Games victory, he was baffled. She just mistimed her race; what’s admirable about that?

The other form of rationality we’re concerned with is “act rationality.” This is the performing of an action because the action in itself is valuable. This is the kind of rationality that turns Ohuruogu’s mistimed race into an achievement. She had to struggle; she had to grit her teeth and fight through the pain barrier in order to come good. That she won the race was more than a footnote in her story, but not a great deal more. “Act rationality” describes the British attitude to sport much better than either “instrumental reason” or, worse, a peculiar “British loser mentality.”

Interestingly, there’s a similar attitude in Japan, only it’s far more striking. The Japanese place a strong emphasis on determination and hard work, as opposed to getting the right results. Ganbatte, which translates roughly to “do your best” is said before sporting events, before school classes and even during company meetings. The pursuit of efficiency in western corporations is paid a certain lip service within Japanese workplaces. Nevertheless, there remains a core belief that the bottom line is improved by determination and hard work, not technology or newfangled processes. The ideal employee in America or the UK finishes his work unstressed and on time, then leaves when his shift ends. In Japan, he or she stays late into the night, struggling through endless piles of paperwork. In Japan, ganbari (the noun form) is a way of life. In Britain, it describes our attitude to sport to some degree, but not much else.

And this is possibly our problem. We believe in ganbari but can never embrace it fully. We resent its consequences. We valorize guts and determination above all other virtues, but are left angry and disappointed when it proves insufficient for victory. All the guts in the world couldn’t help Ricky Hatton after Manny Pacquiao spotted his opening in the second round. Pacquiao had been drilled on Hatton’s weaknesses; he had studied footage and came in with a game-plan. He didn’t see it as a battle of wills. He didn’t tell journalists that he must have “wanted it more.” Instead he was more prosaic: “ [Hatton] was open and coming forward and his hands were down.” Hatton had no chance to show his heart - as is the case for many of our probably very “gutsy” athletes.

So perhaps we need to decide; we can carry on with our old ways and be more philosophical in defeat. We can try to believe genuinely that “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” (We certainly have enough occasions to wheel out that little piece of wisdom). Or, we can stop being so macho, and grow up a little. The very best athletes make it look easy; they train hard – of course – but they’re trained to be professionals, not gladiators.

A great believer in this latter approach is UK Athletics’ recently appointed head coach, Charles Van Commenee. During the World European Indoor Athletics Championships in Turin, he was asked about Marilyn Okoro’s disappointing 800m race. She ran out hard at the start and then ran out of legs before the end. Interviewing, Jonathan Edwards suggested that Van Comenee “must” have been impressed with Okoro’s “commitment.” “No,” replied the Dutchman, “I thought it was naïve and unprofessional. Anyone can run out fast.” Much as I personally like the British/Japanese approach to competition, I can’t help feeling that the man has a point.

Please let me know what you think about this topic. Do you agree with this analysis? How do other countries compare? I’d love to hear everybody’s views so please post if you have something to add.


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      linz2d 8 years ago

      I suppose I have to agree, being British myself I think we have a tendency to support the underdog. Even when we know our side is the clear favorite, if we see the other side is doing their best and struggling then we will probably end up supporting them. I get the impression though that the mindset in the US is that to win for their side is everything and there can be only one winner.

      I agree that giving it your best in all parts of life is admirable and something we should all inspire to, but I cant help but think of that famous British saying by James Howell "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". From what I have heard and read about Japanese salary-men then Jack is very dull with working too hard and not having enough time for recreation or family.