James Corrigan: Nice try, Dave, but sporting winners are not always those first past the post

The Way I See It: It's exactly how they do it in the Olympics. Each round sees the worsteliminated and the overall winner is the one who wins the final round. That's AV for you
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The Independent Online

Everybody knows politics and sport mix about as well as say, football and religion. So why do those with their agendas keep jamming their wooden spoon into the bowl and whisking it around like a demented Duracell bunny?

The reason is obvious. The people understand sport better than any other aspect of society. It used to be war where everyone went for their metaphors, and some still do (mainly, it must be said, sportswriters). But in this age of flippancy, where the man in the street is regarded as possessing the same mental capacity as the ape in a zoo, there is only one place to go for the simple comparison. Speechwriters switch on Sky Sports News and scribble merrily away.

Never has this been any more apparent than in the countdown to next week's Alternative Vote referendum. David Cameron, that well-known sports nut who was such a valued member of those recreational enthusiasts at the Bullingdon Club, was the first to get the ball rolling (to stay in language) with his much-ridiculed sprinting analogy.

"Think forward to the Olympics: Usain Bolt powers home in the 100m; when it comes to handing out the gold medal they give it to the person who came third. We wouldn't do it in the Olympics, we shouldn't do it in politics. We've got to vote no to this crazy system."

Erm, sorry Dave, but that's exactly how they do it in the Olympics. Each round sees the worst losers eliminated and the overall winner is the athlete who wins the final round. That's AV for you, right there in a sporting allegory. Of course, Cameron knew this, or at least his advisers did, but they believed the image would stick in the minds of the mindless regardless. And, just to make sure, a few sporting luminaries stepped up.

David Gower's view was interesting and not at all transparent. "In sport, as in elections, you have a winner and a loser," he wrote in The Sun. "It is the way we separate the best from the worst. It is important that the winner is chosen simply and fairly."

Naturally, cricket does this wonderfully. There are always, but always, winners and losers, as Gower is well aware having never once played in a drawn Test match. Neither was he working for Sky Sports at the recent Cricket World Cup, where England qualified for the knockout stages having lost three times in a system which proved as straightforward as coalition politics.

But then, sport is not anything like general perception. Karren Brady, AKA "the first lady of football", invoked the old "there are no prizes for coming second" line in her own demolition of AV. If her employers, West Ham, finished second in the Premier League this year – which, alas, seems something of a long shot – they would receive a prize estimated to be between £30m and £60m when all the TV money is totted up.

Indeed, they could finish fourth and receive the same. Conversely the prize for winning the Premier League is a whole £800,000 more than that of the runner-up. Considering the first prize is £16m, that's not even worth the roasted sodium chloride on the peanuts.

The same follows through most sports. Both rugby codes in England operate end-of-season play-offs to decide "the winner". A team can conceivably win half the games of another team that season and still be champions. In tennis, the player who wins the most points can lose the match; just as in snooker, just as in darts, just as in squash, badminton, table tennis ... the list goes on. Yes, sport is about as fair as it is square. Think of it as an unjust circle.

So not only is it insulting to believe the public can only understand a political vote in sporting terms, it also does nothing to help the public understand. In effect, it only confuses the picture further. And the picture most of us have seen recently has been on the front of the "Vote NO!" pamphlet, depicting Cameron's nonsense in full colorific glory. So there's the finish of a 100m with the arrow pointing to the puffed-out bloke in third, or maybe even fourth, saying "the winner under AV".

Of course, this happened. Or should have anyway. Calvin Smith crossed the line in fourth in the 100m final of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and years later was discovered to be the only sprinter in the first five of that infamous race never to have tested positive for drugs. "I should be awarded the gold medal," says Smith to this very day. The International Olympic Committee has refused, which is something of a relief. Where would the "Vote No" brigade be if he were? They might have to argue from a political standpoint.

Incidentally, the man who finished second, but then was elevated to first under the IOC's revered "IV" system – ie Ben Johnson had been injecting – has announced his intention to stand for the New Jersey senate. "Let me run," so Carl Lewis pleaded to a judge opposing his candidature on residency grounds. Oh blimey, he's at it as well.