The winner may take all, but sportsmanship and the plucky loser are still to be celebrated

The art of losing is chronically overlooked, but there is much to learn from it

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“For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.” Until this week, I had firmly believed that this essence of corny Corinthian spirit must have come from the pen of some late-Victorian gentleman-amateur, his luxuriant moustaches dampening with tears at the memory of distant days on rugger pitch or cricket field. I was mistaken.

Those lines were written by – an American, the highly professional sports writer Grantland Rice. Moreover, his paean to the plucky loser’s sportsmanship in the great game of life takes its cues from the contest the US likes to call “football”, an armoured enterprise that looks more like the Battle of Kursk than a chivalric joust. In “Alumnus Football”, Rice’s never-say-die American Everyman crunches into one post-college existential setback after another, “for when he switched his course again and dashed into the line, The massive Guard named Failure did a toddle on his spine”.

Walt Whitman it ain’t. Still, the renown of Rice’s ditty hints that the US preserved, at least on its more patrician turf, a sporting culture alien to the principle often attributed to baseball coach Leo “the Lip” Durocher: “Nice guys finish last”.

This week, hundreds of millions witnessed a revival of Rice’s sporting ethos against the Durocher religion of success. At the World Cup, the US “soccer” (not “football”) team lost heroically to Belgium, and in their stout-hearted defeat won more friends than many of their compatriots ever have in victory.

Pause for a moment to reflect on what that result and its impact say about the strangeness of “American exceptionalism” in sport, and perhaps elsewhere. The planet thrills to see the mightiest, wealthiest nation that has ever existed almost (but not quite) overcome a land of 11 million that often seems scarcely to function, that potters on without a government for years, and that stands for ever on the brink of breaking up into its French and Flemish halves.

With its stress on spirit rather than outcome, Barack Obama’s “You guys did us proud” call to team captain Clint Dempsey and impossibly resilient goalkeeper Tim Howard sounded almost, well, English. The President praised his footballers (European usage now) because “you guys just carried yourselves with a lot of class”. Give or take a few tweaks of diction, a curate in flannels consoling the trounced Second XI, c.1895, could hardly have done better.

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“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” teases Elizabeth Bishop – a rather better American poet than Rice and one who, by the way, lived in Brazil for 15 years. As her poem “One Art” goes on to show, it absolutely is. But could the cult of graceful defeat be in any case a sham – the duplicitous luxury of privileged top dogs who know that they will always prevail in the competitions that really count? Later critiques of Victorian sportsmanship have seen it as an insiders’ indulgence. It suited an elite of equals but never extended to the lower orders or the lesser breeds, who would be vanquished by hook or by crook.

Return to another cheesy monument of sporting verse, Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada”, and one line gives the entire game away. Why does Newbolt’s hero have to draw on the ethos of public-school cricket (“Play up! play up! and play the game!”) amid the blood-sodden sands of a colonial war? Because “The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead, And the regiment blind with dust and smoke”. “The Gatling’s jammed…”: it was the British access to industrially produced machine guns and rapid-fire rifles – Gatlings, Maxims, Martinis – against tribes with spears and swords that drove imperial expansion in the late 19th century. Fair play? A level playing-field? Tell that to the marines. As Hilaire Belloc put it in 1898, “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.” It took the one-off genius of Rudyard Kipling to celebrate British reverses overseas, most of all in his tribute to Sudanese nomad warriors, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”: “We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ’ardly fair; But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.”

Abroad, politicians and sportspeople duly took note. When push came to shove, Britannia would waive the rules. “Fair play” in the British mode, with its glory in an honourable defeat, was scorned as a deceitful façade. True underdogs, newer competitors soon decided, could justifiably resort to rule-busting trickery in order to compensate for their historic handicaps.

Hence, in Latin America, the celebration of Maradona’s “hand of God” goal against England in 1986 not in spite of its dishonesty but because of it. Across much of the continent (though not in Brazil), Luis Suarez’s World Cup bite on Giorgio Chiellini has profited from the same time-tested defence. Tricks and ruses help to settle old scores. Even underhand means justify the end.

In this perspective, losing gracefully and according to the rulebook would prolong ancient injustice. You will find this view not just among fanatical nationalists. Uruguay’s best-known writer, the football-crazy Eduardo Galeano – author of the wonderful Soccer in Sun and Shadow – has made the case. In 2010, Galeano called Suarez’s goalmouth handball against Ghana – hardly an imperialist leviathan – “an act of patriotic madness”, but in a distinctly sympathetic tone.

The American century, led by figures who shared the Leo Durocher view of coming last, confirmed to most that the winner will and should take all. Losers, however valiant and chivalrous, lost their romantic allure. In sport, English no-hopers became sorry symbols of post-imperial perplexity until, with the last Olympics, Lottery-funded focus imported a Leo the Lip attitude into some disciplines.

Even in politics, the mark of idealistic failure clung to some doomed figures. Michael Foot never wiped away that taint. Although a surprise winner in 1992, John Major began to wear an invisible cloak of defeat as early as Black Wednesday in September 1992. Ed Miliband’s fear must be that such an aura of predestined downfall will settle around him like a choking fog.

A 1963 essay by Michael Frayn divided post-war British public life into Herbivores and Carnivores. That schism endures. Heirs to the Corinthian values of their high-minded Victorian forebears, the altruistic Herbivores prize playing the game with style and, if need be, losing with panache. The Carnivores, who swept to power in 1979, disdain such “wet” folly. Frayn’s insight holds into “the members of the upper and middle classes who believe that if God had not wished them to prey on all smaller and weaker creatures without scruple he would not have made them as they are”. To them, nice guys really do finish last.

For today’s hard-nosed consensus, the sporting gent and the good loser belong to a vanished epoch of sentiment and hypocrisy. But some notable voices have demurred. It was an author-activist with gifts that straddled literature, politics and sport who made the most entrancing case for those Victorian values, on and off the field. C L R James from Trinidad – Trotskyist revolutionary and the finest of all cricket writers – fervently believed in the ideals of fair play, honest competition, magnanimity in victory and grace in defeat that he had learned on the grounds of his island. James found in them not a class or colonial blindfold but universal human truths. It would simply take the small matter of a global revolution and the overthrow of imperialism to make them real for everyone.

Harder-edged thinkers scoff at James’s Caribbean public-school ethos, honed at Queen’s Royal College and Maple Cricket Club in Port of Spain and cherished through decades of sometimes bitterly sectarian left-wing politics in the West Indies, the US and UK. I still find it bewitching. In his peerless classic Beyond a Boundary, James records his dismay at the win-at-all-costs mood that seized his beloved game in the early 1930s. At that time, the cynical aggression of “body-line” fast bowling by the English found its answer in the ruthless, soulless run-accumulation of Australia’s Don Bradman. For C L R, body-line was simply “the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket”. In a pitiless era of depression and dictatorship, how could genuine sportsmanship survive?

“Modern society took a turn downwards in 1929 and ‘It isn’t cricket’ is one of the casualties.” Did he ever recommend to Trotsky the well-timed sporting declaration that gives the other chaps a chance? We can but hope. For all the modern mockery, good losers have a distinguished ancestry. In Stoic philosophy, the likes of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius taught that honest endeavour mattered far more than the results that might await it (although since Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire with stellar success for 20 years, he was perhaps not the go-to guy for advice on how to cope with crushing disappointment). Montaigne, arch-Stoic of the Renaissance, wrote of the Greeks’ heroic failure at Thermopylae that “There are defeats more triumphant than victories”.

You might even treat the fate of the USA soccer team as a rare American Thermopylae, as a dauntless band of brothers fell at last against the overwhelming horde of Persians. Well, OK – Belgians. Montaigne went on to ask: “Is there any trophy dedicated to the conquerors, which was not much more due to these who were overcome?” The contemporary realist briskly replies: no. I still fondly hope that someone will whisper Montaigne’s words when the winning captain hoists the golden trophy at the Maracana stadium on 13 July.

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