Terence Blacker: The British have started to enjoy failure

The Way We Live: It is strikingly new, this cheerful embracing of the sporting spirit


This great summer of running and jumping, of kicking and hitting balls, was never going to be predictable. Some thought that London's hosting of the Olympic Games would bring out the kind of emotional, flag-waving patriotism not usually associated with these islands. Others, a touch rashly, managed to convince themselves that a combination of excitement and public support would lift the performances of those representing us, that we would start winning things.

Instead, something altogether more startling has happened. We have become more easygoing about sport, more understanding of the limitations of those who play it. They, in turn, have become more graceful in defeat.

Britain, at almost the last minute, has been given its Olympic image. London 2012 will not be about efficiency or teamwork or diversity. They will be the Ordinary Olympics in which effort and character have a place on the podium, where losers can feel like winners.

It is a more surprising development than many foreigners will assume. Our international image may be that of the good sport, playing up and playing the game, but in reality the British tend to be lousy at losing. In recent decades, our national football has followed a grimly predictable cycle: unrealistic hope, followed by disarray and setbacks, followed by agonising disappointment in major tournaments, while the press and public taunted and mocked manager and players.

At this summer's Euro 2012, the mood was entirely different. Pundits were cheerfully pessimistic about England's chances. The manager, while not being the appointee the press had hoped for, was supported all the same. Pre-emptive excuses were trotted out – injuries, new manager, suspension of a key player – and when, as predicted, the team went home early, the consensus was that it had acquitted itself well. There had been no disciplinary problems. Even the English fans had behaved themselves.

The process was repeated this weekend at Wimbledon. Defeat for Andy Murray, we have been told over and over again, was really a sort of victory – for sportsmanship, for decency, for the valiant, if unsuccessful, efforts of a brilliant player.

It is strikingly new, this cheerful embracing of the sporting spirit – or, to put it a touch less positively, of failure. Heroic defeats now knock victories out of the headlines. England's cricketers are currently thrashing Australia, the top-ranked one-day team in the world, in a series of one-day internationals. Once, this achievement would have been greeted with joyful, fist-pumping headlines. Now it is politely acknowledged on an inside page.

Perhaps one should welcome the dawning of a new age of British sportsmanship. Not only is it more civilised, but it is also less tiring than the switchback ride of hope and despair. Putting it in a political context, it could even be seen as a reflection of a more mature national mood. We have seen Murdoch, and have decided we prefer Leveson. We no longer trust political winners, preferring solid, honourable runners-up like Vince Cable.

The problem is that those who win today are likely to win more in the future. In his new book, The Winner Effect, the neuroscientist Ian Robertson has shown how the release of testosterone and the neurotransmitter dopamine after victory, in spectators as much as competitors, causes them to be more aggressive, competitive, powerful and confident. It boosts their appetite for the next success.

This summer, it has been easy to see the winner effect – or, rather, the loser effect – in action while watching our sporting heroes. For much of the first half of the decisive match between England and Italy, the game was evenly balanced before suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown, the confidence of the English players evaporated and they became increasingly like losers-in-waiting. A similar moment occurred, within the crowd and then the player, at the end of the second set of the Wimbledon men's final.

Winning is not shameful. In an aggressive world, losing well is not always quite enough. Taking part is fine, and ending up with a silver or bronze medal even better. It is the gold, though, which really matters.

Crime heroes don't have to be as disturbed as Wallander

Bleak landscapes, dead bodies, gloomy conversations, unflattering lighting: with the new BBC series of Wallander, we are back in the increasingly familiar Scandinavia of brilliant, but psychologically disturbed, detectives.

Suddenly, the winning formula is beginning to seem predictable and a little silly. Not only is the hero, as usual, a martyr to guilt and insecurity, but on this occasion it takes nothing more than the discovery of a body (something of an occupational hazard, one might think) for him to start falling apart, unable to sleep, drinking too much, forgetting to shave, never far from tears.

Is this really how the Swedes and Danes see their senior police officers? Lachrymose, self-pitying, forever agonising about the mess they have made of their lives, rather than getting on with their jobs, they are in danger of creating a new and faintly absurd national stereotype. The BBC's new director-general George Entwistle should buck the trend, and bring back one of the no-nonsense, slightly stupid cops of the past. We need a new John Thaw or Stratford Johns.


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