A great sporting event such as the Olympics reminds us of some key truths, which are of cultural and political importance.
1) Having victors and losers is much better than equality. We love to cheer the victors, to celebrate their triumph and excellence. Competition is a wonderful thing, and the process of struggle and overcoming opponents has an intrinsic value. We know this. We comprehend it at a deep level. It is part of the attraction of war. It is much of the attraction of politics and business and academia. Sometimes misguided folk are queasy about the merits of competition in schools or amongst children. They're wrong, and we see they are wrong most clearly when we see the honour and glory of the victors in sport.
2) Competition is a driver of excellence. The presence of peers that challenge, when one most wants to win, draws out the best in people's skills, effort and character.
3) Victory isn't always fair. The victor isn't necessarily the one that tried the hardest, or that was the nicest, or that came up out of the most difficult circumstances. The laurels go to those that put it all together on the day. Competition incentivises hard work and character, but these are not always enough. If you want justice, await the Last Judgement. If you want triumph, you need talent and luck as well as hard work and character. Competition exalts excellence, not desert.
4) When you're the best, you're the best. Some Olympic golds have been won at far below historic records — e.g. the Men's Longjump was won by Greg Rutherford with the shortest distance for 40 years, 8.31 metres. But Greg Rutherford was the best on the day. Other people from the past or the future weren't there on the day, and we cannot say how far they might have jumped had they been. It can be of value to compare ourselves to those in other eras, if that spurs us on to greater deeds. But there is little to be gained by regretting that we are not them and they not us. If, say, a business does well in a recession and makes a profit, should we criticise the businessmen involved for being pleased or enjoying spending their profits, any more than we would if they had succeeded in a boom? They can only triumph in their own era.
5) It isn't bad to enjoy your talents and triumphs. Why do we love Usain Bolt? Because he's just as good as he thinks he is. We love the Bolts and the Alis and even the Man Utds for their strut and swagger and lack of shame in their excellence as much, or almost as much, as for their skills. Why, then, do we pretend to dislike it if our businesses or schools or even our politicians are, indeed, as good as they think they are?
6) The extolling of victors benefits the defeated, also. Those that lose almost all prefer to have been there. The atmosphere, the hype, the tension, the struggle, the honour. Think of those that hobble across the line, that fall and continue to the end, that are crushed mercilessly and grin all over their faces in the interviews afterwards in the sheer joy of having been there. If we give of our best and excellence is properly exalted, then we are honoured by having been part of it.
7) With perseverance and indomitability, today's defeat can be turned into tomorrow's triumph. Think of the Olympians that now have gold at last in their third or fourth Olympics. They were defeated and tried again, were defeated and tried again, were defeated and tried again, and then victors. Much political debate gives the impression that one defeat must be the end – that if, say, a child is failed in an exam, that child is finished for ever. But that is not so. Indeed, more than that…
8) The pain of defeat can be a good thing, not a bad. Think of those that struggled so hard and came second and gave near-broken interview afterwards. To be sure, a true champion should be classy, like Roger Federer, believing that defeat today can be a learning experience for tomorrow's victory. But today's defeat should hurt, but hurt such that we strive even harder, so as not to feel that pain tomorrow but instead the joy of victory. Political debate is sometimes couched as if everyone is unmanned by defeat, so any failure in life will mean surrender and hiding, so as not to have hope dashed again. But for many people, failure is the spur to overcoming, the proving of character.
9) There is more to life than survival until tomorrow. It is commonplace to hear that space travel, or a great cathedral, or an opera is a waste of money better spent on the poor. But the poor will always be with us. We need to exult as well as to exist. To be sure, the Olympics uses resources – and what a great way to use them!
10) Everything seems better when the sun shines. Well, it does, doesn't it?