The British Onlooker and ‘Valiant Failure’

There is a perception within more cynical British sporting circles that our nation has grown accustomed to accepting, and even championing a so-called ‘valiant failure’ from top athletes on the world stage. One need look no further than SW19 and the endeavours of Tim Henman and Andy Murray as prime examples; year upon year, the British public have congratulated them on yet another semi-final exit from their home grand slam. However, whether this school of thought can actually be considered a national characteristic is questionable. Is it a realistic assessment of our country’s sporting profile?

It would seem that in Britain there is at best scepticism, and at worst resignation to the fact that we are not the best at anything anymore, so as a result we commend our top sportsmen for merely reaching the business end of sporting tournaments. In last year’s Six Nations, no one seemed fussed that England had blown a golden opportunity for a Grand Slam in World Cup year; emphasis instead was placed on England’s first Championship win since 2003 – their collapse against Ireland was irrelevant until defeat by France in the World Cup quarter-final. An even better example is that of Jessica Ennis’ silver medal at last year’s World Athletics Championships in Daegu. Despite being the clear favourite, Ennis did not leave the Korean Republic with the gold, but again, the British onlooker seemed grateful that she had won any medal at all.

In countries like Australia, the United States and Germany, until a sport offers international success, it is relatively neglected in the national consciousness (although admittedly across the pond, this is because the most popular sports are all American anyway). In Britain, however, we tend to neglect a sport until just before success might be achieved, thus applying the utmost pressure on the athlete involved and giving them, if anything, the greatest chance of failure.

Initially, I viewed the acceptance of valiant failure in British sports as more of a chronic disease, than what I would now in fact term as ‘acceptance of our place in the world’. We are a nation of sixty million people, not the hundreds of millions that the likes of China, the United States and Russia can boast. We have the twenty-second largest population in the world yet finished fourth in the medals table in Beijing in 2008. Our sporting achievements are generally a product of our small nation status. Arguments that imply that our status as a wealthy nation should fast-track us to success are invalid: you can have all the money in the world, but if you do not have talent you will not succeed. Do you really think that Usain Bolt, Muttiah Muralitharan and Novak Djokovic have been showered with gold since infancy?

Britain has learned to accept its position within the sporting world as also-rans in the higher echelons of sporting life. We accept valiant failure when the odds of ultimate success are slim anyway, as has been the case in tennis for the last decade and a half, and in Formula 1 since the rise of Red Bull. In this sense, it is not valiant failure but performing as we should. What we as a nation need to do is figure out how the likes of Australia and the Netherlands punch so far above their weight. Until that day, the stereotype of perennial underachiever is British destiny.

William Cook


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