Comment: When Is Not Coming First Good Enough?

When Is Not Coming First Good Enough?
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Amidst the subsidiary aims of sport there is one primary aim, winning. No sportsman or woman would enter the field of play without the aim to be victorious, though sometimes not winning can be enough. A poignant example of this, last weekend, was the British Olympic diver Tom Daley; nobody could deny that Daley entered the 10m platform competition in search of gold, however despite coming away with the bronze medal there was no sign of disappointment for the youngster.

His winning smile could not hide his elation and the British diving team promptly joined him for a celebratory dip in the diving pool. For Daley, and the nation, coming third was enough, whereas for the likes of Jessica Ennis anything but gold would have been a consolatory prize. Similar examples from the Olympics could be witnessed at the Eton Dorney rowing lake; while single sculler Alan Campbell wept on the podium in celebration of his bronze medal, Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase were left speechless with disappointment, only able to utter an apology to those they felt they had let down after having to settle for silver.

This dichotomy is comparable to the celebration of runs and bowling figures in cricket, or the measured success of one team against another in a series or competition. While it is obvious that a specialist batsman will be less satisfied with a score of fifty than a tail-ender, there is an increasing demand on England batsmen such as Alistair Cook and Jonathon Trott to not only score regular hundreds but also to convert them into what we call ‘big hundreds.’

This transition is also being felt in the career of fast bowler Stuart Broad; at the start of Broad’s career runs were a bonus, he was in the side primarily to take wickets so when he posted anything more than thirty runs it was celebrated with glee. However, Broad’s batting prowess began to increase with the score of his maiden Test Match hundred and numerous fifties and so the term all-rounder began to be linked with Broad’s name.

Subsequently, Broad is not celebrated for mediocre scores anymore, rather he is judged as a batsman would be. Likewise the perception of England has changed, going in to the Test Match series versus West India and the ODI series versus Australia there was talk of not just a victory but of a whitewash. In comparison, in the late nineties, just one Test victory in an ashes series against Australia would have been celebrated despite losing the series as a whole. 

So why, in certain circumstances in sport, can we celebrate something which can be classified as not quite winning? It is primarily down to expectation; the likes of Jessica Ennis, Alistair Cook and the England team are expected to win because they have won in the past.  

They have become victims of their own success meaning that anything less than perfection is no longer good enough. In comparison sportsmen who have not built up this track record of success are not yet expected to deliver ground-breaking performances, so coming second or third can be good enough. There is more to it though; it also comes down to the standard of opposition and the timing of a player’s career.

Tom Daley was World Champion in 2009 but nevertheless nobody expected him to rival the Chinese divers at this Olympics, moreover, people recognise his youth and the potential he has for future Olympic Games. The same is true in cricket; when Australia were at their peak during the 90’s, teams were satisfied and lauded for winning one Test match, even though they had lost the series. Likewise, if Jonny Bairstow scores anything above fifty in the upcoming England versus South Africa Test match he will be praised, though nothing less than a big hundred would be enough for the man he replaced, Kevin Pietersen.

As time passes sportsmen and women adapt along with their sports; subsequently what it means to be successful also changes. Sports go through golden eras where being at the top is far more difficult than it may have been ten years ago.

When we, as the general public or as the media assess the success of an individual or a team, it must be done within the context of their achievement.

© Cricket World 2012

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