Why Silver is the worst medal of all


Watching the Olympic 10m diving yesterday, one couldn’t help but be struck by the delight of Tom Daley, in third, versus the desolation of Qiu Bo in second. This morning a friend sent me a good reason for it: counterfactual thinking.

Put simply, Silver looks at Gold and thinks about loss. But Bronze looks at the whole of the rest of the field and delights in making the podium at all. Each sees the most obvious counterfactual outcome – what might have been. Gold for one, nothing at all for the other. Each then frames their assessment of their situation accordingly: Dumb luck vs Result!

It’s a fascinating insight. And one which travels to other domains – notably work. People often obsess about the job they haven’t got, instead of being grateful for the one they have.

Instead of lamenting over the top spot, more of us should revel in making the podium. Bronze is a more precious metal than it looks.

Noble Purpose


The Olympics bring out my mixed feelings about competition. Winning at all costs, grinding someone else in the dust, the distortion of personality that comes with going ‘all out’. Sometimes, in my sporting past, I’ve avoided finishing people off. Sometimes I’ve played hard and unfair.

Doing it the right way matters. And way beyond sport. I was talking to someone about US politics – and indeed UK politics – where what starts as the ‘noble purpose’ of ‘public service’ finishes in the gutter of ‘attack ads’ and ‘sliming’ your opponent. Campaign managers and political advisers inexorably steer toward the end justifying absolutely all means.

Chinese badminton players have been vilified this week for serving into the net to avoid winning. One of my work friends was there in the Olympic hall. And he told me about the crowd’s initial confusion, then realisation, then real anger as boos rang out. Sport betrayed.

But we are inconsistent. Soccer players defend in numbers to kill a game. Blocking an end – and not offering a shot – can be among cricket’s finest achievements. Where are the boundaries of ‘fair’ play? Or is all fair in love, sport and war?

I was talking to someone at work about us doing things the ‘right’ way. She said ‘Isn’t it simply about quality?’ That helped me get it clear in my head – the answer is no. You can easily do something very effective, of very high quality – but very wrong.

I think the answer is the ‘noble purpose’ test – advancing the objective without defeating the object. History doesn’t always record good runners up, but it rarely forgives ‘bad winners’. The killer instinct is fine, so long as the ‘noble purpose’ lives on.

What do the Olympic Games mean to the UK?

Here’s what I think the Olympics mean to the UK, broadcast on CNN yesterday. Despite the drizzle, high chair and precarious balcony – and the early hour – it was great to be within touching distance of the Olympic Stadium on opening day itself.

Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for me was a stunner – a genuine encapsulation of the UK past and present which exceeded all my hopes and expecations. A truly memorable day. Let the games begin:

London 2012


London’s New Year
Firework Show
Must have cost
A lot of dough
Spent in a flash
On a bang and a crash
Public money
Up in smoke.
But like the Olympics
It gives us hope
An amazing show
Which lifted the spirits
Big Ben bonging
And firing a broadside
The London Eye blazing
Great Catherine wheels
The sky full of sprays
And booming flowers
For ten priceless minutes
The London skyline
And everyone watching
Was lit up by firework showers.

Olympic Ideals

It’s easy to knock sport. Huff and puff, crass commercialism even corruption. But sport can also be pure human expression, ballet, drama and gladiatorial combat – sometimes all rolled into one. The Greeks knew this.

This morning I had a speech to do, at the British Museum, to school pupils and teachers from 29 countries all around the world. From Mongolia, the disputed border regions of northern India, Gaza as well as all over the UK – from Northern Ireland to the Shetland Isles.

They are following 29 very different athletes en route to London 2012. The UK schools are twinned with the international schools that 100m sprint star Usain Bolt went to as a kid, as well as less well know prospective Olympians like India’s best female boxer.

Looking for something to say, I came across Pierre de Coubertins’s Olympic values, first set out in 1894. I’m a great believer in ‘founding moments’. If you want to see the best of what human beings are capable of, the founding moments of great institutions are a good place to start.

And if professional sport – especially football – is eating itself, there is something transcendent and timeless about the Olympic values which is worth hanging onto. As I said to the 150+ pupils and teachers from all around the world, if we can’t all run like the wind or win a Gold Medal, we can all aspire to the Olympic values:

Respect – fair play; knowing your own limits; and taking care of yourself and the environment.

Excellence – taking part and giving your best in your sport and your life.

and Friendship – how, through sport especially, to understand each other despite any differences.

They feel as fresh and relevant today as they were in 1894.