Competition often gets a bad rap these days. All too often it is seen as divisive, gladiatorial and aggressive – the credo of alpha males on the rampage on Wall Street. It doesn’t help that the 19th-century philosopher who waxed most enthusiastically about the importance of the competitive spirit to humankind was the Nazis’ favourite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche.
A spirit of revulsion against competition is clearly gaining ground among young people in Britain, if a report by the MCC and the cricketing charity Chance to Shine is to be believed. A poll it conducted showed that 62 per cent of young people would “not be bothered” if the business of winning and losing was subtracted entirely from the sporting events in which they take part.
One suspects that the response to that, especially on parts of the left, will be: hooray! Predatory capitalism, they tend to say, thrives on society subscribing to a kind of bastardised Darwinian ethic in which winning or losing are deemed the only things that count. If the younger generation is starting to say no thanks, we’d rather co-operate with one another than compete, that must be all to the good.
The problem with that view is that it is a jaundiced take on a particular type of competitiveness. Critiquing the cult of winning, especially when it is taken to grotesque excess, has a long and august pedigree. Xenophanes did that 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, when he lambasted the society of his day for heaping – he said – far too many honours on sportsmen and for ranking winners of games above thinkers such as himself.
Xenophanes had a point, but it shouldn’t be taken too far. We mustn’t forget that without that competitive spirit, we would have missed out on a lot of towering works of art and scientific breakthroughs, none of which came about via a committee.
Not all competition need be aggressive and unpleasant and losing does not have to be seen as shameful. Of course it is fun to win but it can also be fun to lose and fun simply to take part. We should celebrate the competitive spirit, not condemn it.