With the Olympic Games currently being staged in Rio, naturally the Americans are dominating the medal tables. This is normal; Americans treat this as evidence that everything is right with the world; the rest of us with a sort of weary acceptance that yes, things are proceeding as usual.
But it begs the question: Why are Americans apparently good at every sport we’ve ever heard of, plus all the ones no-one has suspected might exist as well?
I typically like to lay the blame on the simple mathematics of population and economics. The United States of America is in the world’s top three for population and has the world’s largest and most dominant economy. They’ve got the population base to find people who are good at just about everything and the economic muscle to buy them world-class training facilities. The results speak for themselves.
But there’s more to it than that.
Talking with my American wife about it, she made the astute observation that there’s a cultural difference between the way Americans approach sports and the way Brits approach sports. She expressed it as “Brits don’t worship athleticism in the way Americans do”, and while that wouldn’t be the way I’d put it, she’s definitely got a point. There are reasons why Americans are so good at sports, and they are primarily cultural, not mathematic.
I thought that in this post I’d take a look at some of those differences. Yes, it’s another “compare and contrast” exercise between our two countries. I happen to like them. Live with it.
The usual caveats about generalising and personal opinion apply; this is my list, not a definitive guide. Plus the following:
I’ve never personally been much of a sportsman. As a child I had the hand-eye coordination of a jellyfish, the physical flexibility of a rhino and the forward running speed of a sloth, and there isn’t any point in trying to compete with eagles if you’re one of the world’s penguins.
Also, I’m at best a casual sports fan. It’s difficult to really love something you’re personally terrible at, and the only things I’ll actually turn the TV on to watch are the Olympics and the World Cup. But the cultural differences involved here are fascinating to me, so here goes anyway:
1. Americans exalt competition and success, Brits love a heroic failure.
Americans are naturally competitive about everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, Americans will compete over it. It’s been said that if an American’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls-Royce, the American will want one just like it or better, whereas if a Brit’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls, they will secretly wish the neighbour to die a fiery death. Same envy, different results. Americans compete in work, they compete socially, they compete in and through their kids. And naturally, they compete in and through sports.
Not only do Americans love competition, they worship success therein. Only in America would “loser” achieve the level of perjorative connotation that it has. The world is basically seen as a Darwinian struggle in which you either succeed or are trampled. Even American street address numbering starts at 100, so that the Americans who live there don’t start killing one another over who gets the number 1 address.
Donald Trump seems to be a sort of unfortunate distillation of this mentality. He worships the idea of power and “success” so much that he actively despises weakness – the economically disadvantaged, the disabled, the physically unattractive (his own speech convicts him) – and the one thing that will send him most quickly into frothing apoplexy is the suggestion that reality might be different from his “Look at me, I’m a success” self-image (witness his persistent rage against various reporters). Frankly I think he’s temperamentally unsuited to the leadership of anything more sophisticated than a chimpanzees’ tea party, but we’re talking about sports.
Naturally, therefore, because competition and winning are so important, Americans expect to win. Winning is vital to their national self-image; if we don’t win, something is wrong with our country. See my comments on “loser” above.
By contrast, nothing warms the British heart like a story of someone struggling against the odds and almost making it. To American ears, the concept of “heroic failure” is nonsensically oxymoronic. There’s nothing heroic about failure. Heroes are people who win. End of story.
But it’s one of the subtle central tenets of British culture. Scott of the Antarctic would be a national embarrassment to Americans; to us he’s one of our heroes. Maybe it’s something we got from the Scandinavian domination of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th Centuries. The Norse ideal of a hero was someone who went down fighting for all they were worth, and even their gods were destined to lose the final battle at the end of the world. To them, heroism wasn’t shown in victory, it was shown in how you face death. (To use an analogy from the original Star Trek, it’s the antithesis of Kirk’s cheating solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario.)
Wherever it comes from, we seem as a nation to have some of this idea. Heroes don’t necessarily have to win to be heroes; they show their heroism in how they face whatever comes their way, be it victory or defeat. Sometimes all the courage and training in the world isn’t enough, and the true hero is the one who does what’s right whether that leads them to victory or sends them crashing down in flames. That’s something of what I mean by “heroic failure”.
Turnabout is fair play, so a British political example: I suspect that Boris Johnson was trying to tap into this deep well of the national psyche by the way he campaigned for the Brexit. He seemed totally unprepared for the idea that he might win; I think it might have been intended as a subtle calculation, that he was supposed to put up a valiant fight and lose, so that the nation would then love him. My opinion only, and probably based on hearsay (but the same goes for what I think of Trump, I guess).
Anyway, Brits love heroic failures. Trying big and falling on your face is a way to our hearts like nothing else. Remember Eddie the Eagle?
2. Americans deify hard work, Brits worship fair play
It’s impossible to overstate the value of hard work in American culture. I’ve commented on this in a Father’s Day post a couple of years back; one of the questions that always seems to get asked in American church small groups around that time of year is “what did you learn from your father?”, and almost without exception the answer Americans give includes something about the value of hard work as the first or second thing mentioned. And without exception it’s in there somewhere.
American culture worships at the altar of work. Whereas in Britain, asking someone what job they do is perceived as a sly way of asking how much money they make, in America it’s one of the first questions asked. Work is what defines you; an out-of-work American suffers a sort of identity crisis in a way Brits don’t (or not to the same degree), because who Americans are is so tied up in what they do. The American Dream is that if you work hard, anyone can make it; their love of success makes them gravitate especially to those who started from nothing and made themselves wealthy and famous. The entrepreneur, the business-starter, the self-made man: these are the national icons.
Most Brits, I think, would probably suspect that the American Dream is a subtle bill of goods: that hard work doesn’t always pay off in the real world and that the deck is being stacked by those who are “winners” under the current system. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t only dependent on what you personally can do. Time and chance happen to us all. The race is not always to the swift.
Americans also almost universally see personal drive and ambition as basically unalloyed good things. I’ve heard Americans saying “I’m a very driven person” and meaning something unequivocally positive, whereas to me it always comes across as either “I’m a Nazi to my underlings and my employees are plotting to kill me” or “I want my boss’ job and I’ll trample anyone who gets in the way”. They’re often prepared to accept levels of cutthroat ruthlessness in the pursuit of goals that would shock most Brits; again, look at Donald Trump. Any advantage you can wrest is to be seized with both hands, whether it’s above or below the table. If playing dirty gets the job done, there’s a certain amount of shrugging and telling people not to be crybabies. All’s fair in love and war.
Theologically, the work focus leads to an awful lot of American Christians struggling with the notion of grace, but it’s not like there aren’t facets of the British mentality that run diametrically opposed to the truth of God. Anyway, we’re talking about sports. Onward!
Brits, by comparison, deify the notion of fair play. Sharing, fairness and taking turns are drummed into children with the same singleminded devotion we show to the teaching of important things like table manners. My own kids’ ineptitude with a knife and fork is something I find deeply shameful; most Americans, however, wouldn’t even notice a problem in the way they eat.
Where Americans crowd and use their elbows, British people wait patiently in line. Your turn will come. I suspect that if Michael Phelps had been British, he wouldn’t have come out of retirement to swim in the Rio Games, and when I personally am confronted with ultrasuccessful athletes like this, I’m always struck with the impulse to cheer for someone else. Anyone else, in fact: he’s already won his share of medals, and it’s someone else’s turn now.
I expect that most of my countrymen would find that this impulse resonates with them; to most Americans it’s probably an absurdity. A winner is expected to keep on winning, otherwise he becomes a loser (or worse, a “quitter”) and we despise him. By contrast, the British “heroic failure” mentality means we often warm more to our celebrities on the way down than on the way up.
Notions of fair play carry over into the language. One of the primary connotations of “sporting” in the British variety of English is “giving the other guy a chance; not pressing your advantage; playing fairly and in a gentlemanly manner”, and of course, “it’s not fair!” is probably the number one complaint that you will hear from children up and down the country whenever anything goes wrong.
It allowed us to host an Olympics without any shadow of judging scandals that I ever heard about; as a nation, we’re deeply devoted to the idea of fairness and the level playing field. We cheer for the underdog, because the big guy has all the advantages and it’s a way to do something to even the odds a little. We also have a deep-rooted national suspicion that if you’re successful, probably you had an unfair advantage of some kind. Someone with Trump’s background would never make it in the British political scene because of the unfair advantage that his inherited wealth gave him, and we’d never celebrate the way he uses his money to push people around in the way that some Americans seem to celebrate it.
Americans, on the other hand, would probably view the success of the successful as just desserts. Their national mythology expresses the idea that hard work always pays off; therefore the successful must be those who have worked for it (even if they didn’t necessarily get their own hands dirty). It’s right that they enjoy the fruits of their success, including, perhaps, the right to do what they can to see to it that they keep on succeeding. If this means bending the system to support them, American culture doesn’t care about it as much as it cares about winning.
3. American education emphasises sports to an insane degree
University-level sports is big business in the USA. Any American who hasn’t spent the last hundred years in an underground nuclear bunker knows about March Madness, the BCS, College Baseball and so on. They’re televised and followed nationally by legions of fans, even among those who never went to university or played the sport in question.
Partly this is just that Americans exhibit a far greater degree of loyalty to their university or college than Brits do. We don’t have class rings; reunions are very low-key; we don’t do the whole “Class of ’86: The Titans” type naming thing. Very few Brits, apart from perhaps those who went to Oxford or Cambridge, would have an expectation that their child would necessarily go to the same university they went to. But it goes deeper and broader than that. With the exception of the traditional Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, there isn’t a single university-level sporting fixture that anyone in Britain would even remotely suggest televising. Universities are academic institutions; they aren’t supposed to be there for their sports programs. In Britain, if you want to study something like Sports Management at university, you try to go to the single sports-focused university, Loughborough. Who therefore win every sporting event they are in, which makes most of the competitions (particularly in the Midlands regional group where my own university was) unwatchably lopsided. There’s no point.
Anyway, with the way most of our universities’ funding comes from the public purse, we’d think they were wasting our money spending it on fripperies like sports teams rather than the academic education they are supposed to be there for.
Even at a primary-school (“elementary school”, O American) level, American school sports are worlds more professional and organised than British ones. What in British schools is a “P.E. teacher” rejoices in American schools with the title “Coach”. It’s a different focus. In Britain the suggestion is that they are a teacher, whose job it is to make sure your bodies aren’t withering while you exercise your mind in a classroom. In America they are a “coach”; their job is to help you succeed in your chosen sport.
The unspoken expectation is that you will have one, and that’s not nearly so much the case in Britain. Everyone is required to have some physical activity, but not everyone is expected to be an athlete. Some people are cheetahs, some people are sloths. There’s no shame in being one of nature’s sloths; they just aren’t well-designed for speed. Lack of basic sporting talent is not necessarily something you can help; it might well be inherent in who you are.
I suspect that the money machine drives a lot of the emphasis on sports in American schools. By and large, American schools are humungous by comparison to British ones (my high school was considered huge with about 600-800 kids including what in America are Junior High-age children, whereas there are high schools around here that have easily 1200 or more kids and less than half the age range of their British counterparts), and this means they have far more resources to devote to nonacademic things. In Britain, if you want to do something less mainstream like archery, your school is not going to be able to help you. They don’t have the money and they don’t have the people, and they will not waste either of those resources trying to make the time.
My wife counters that if American people weren’t devoted to sports in general, the money wouldn’t go to it in schools. I can see that, but I think that the “devotion to sports” is a complex of things stemming more from the veneration of the American twin gods of competition and hard work than it is about sports per se. I’d suggest that schools focus on sports as a way to let all the kids exercise their inner competitive jerk in a relatively controlled environment that isn’t going to end up with someone getting killed.
Because certainly the level of British sports fandom is comparable. Football (by which I mean soccer, not handegg) players have even more inflated salaries, not to mention egoes, than their American sporting counterparts. People are still insane enough to strip to the waist and paint themselves in their team’s colours, even with British weather to contend with. A team’s fortunes at their match may provoke either a celebration or a riot. We’ll cheer on our Olympic athletes with gusto even when we know they’re lucky to have made it that far, and we’ll get disappointed despite that knowledge if they don’t somehow pull off a miracle and win a medal.
However, you’d never get British universities accepting a knuckle-dragging troglodyte of a student purely because they can kick a ball, but this is what happens with the US’ sports scholarships. As I said, British universities aren’t perceived as being about sports; no-one cares who wins the national university rugby championship except students and their parents, and not all of them. The idea that you’d allow people to go to university just based on athletic achievement rather than academic ability is mind-numbingly dumb to me. Yeah, sure, if they have the academic ability as well, but not solely for sports. Why, America? How did it start? What is the academic point?
Maybe my wife’s idea of an American “worship of athleticism” isn’t as odd as I thought.
4. Brits insist on dividing themselves up
We’re already a smallish nation, population-wise. There are at least five European nations with larger populations, and we don’t even register against populational heavyweights like India, the USA and Brazil. But then, for reasons of tradition, we insist on dividing ourselves up into our component parts for most sporting events. We may be “Team GB” in the Olympics, but in the World Cup, or the European football championships, or rugby, we play as Scotland, England, Wales and (occasionally) Northern Ireland.
Understand, I’m not begrudging the Scots the opportunity to field their own team, nor to cheer for whoever’s playing against England. But it always seems to me like we’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot. We aren’t big enough to do that any more.
Once upon a time it might have made sense. Surprising as it might be to modern ears, the United Kingdom once held the same sort of ultradominance in sports that the United States does today (incidentally, should that be “the United States does” or “the United States do”?). And so, due to the national devotion to fair play, it was more sporting to compete as England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland than as the United Kingdom all together. It’s more important that it be a fair and evenly-matched competition, even if that means hamstringing ourselves, than it is to win. Americans probably see this as a sort of national devotion to failure, but it isn’t. Fair play matters.
5. Americans revel in victory, Brits don’t want it to go to our heads
This is similar to some of what I’ve already said, but the emphasis is a little different.
Americans have an expectation of national victory surpassing even the Chinese (or the Soviets before them). Their whole national mythology leads them to the belief that the United States of America shows a self-evident superiority to every other nation, because We Are America, and we have the free-est and best country in the world. More, Americans approach competition with a mindset of victory. They won’t be happy with anything less than gold, and ideally we want to utterly crush the opposition, rewrite the record books and win silver and bronze too while we’re at it. To most Americans, this is probably a “well duh”-level obvious truism, but the attitude is a bit more alien to us Brits.
Americans believe in celebrating victory, and only victory. The national cult is the Cult of the Winner, and any winner is lauded and celebrated with a vigour that only Americans can devote to a party. And as soon as they stop being a Winner, the nation casts them out onto the ash-heap of history with an alacrity that has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you can no longer produce the goods, we don’t like you any more. “What have you done for me lately?”
Second-best isn’t considered good enough unless another American takes gold, and even then the individual athletes will fight amongst themselves. The Cult of the Winner tells you that “runner-up” is just another way of saying “fastest loser”, and that the one who does win deserves all of the acclaim.
No British version of Michael Phelps is going to arrogantly waggle four fingers at the camera in a sort of “I’ve won this gold in four Olympics, na-na-na-na-na!”. Yes, the athletes deserve their personal celebrations, but there’s a distinct national attitude of despising even the appearance of arrogance, and the last thing anyone wants is for victory to go to their head. Once it does, they’re insufferable.
I remember the first season that Wayne Rooney played football for England. At that point he was a joy to see; it was like you could see him thinking “I’m playing for England; how cool is that?” every couple of minutes. His delight in being able to play the game at that level was wonderful. After a season or so of that, though, all the fame and applause gave him a severely swelled head, and the modern Wayne Rooney is a very different animal (using that term deliberately).
“Don’t let it go to your head” is something almost every British kid has heard at some point in their life. Yes, it’s great that you won, but you don’t need to rub salt in the other guy’s wounds. Let them at least keep their dignity. Don’t become an arrogant braggart over it. It’s not sportsmanlike.
Even in other fields than sport, there’s a sense that it’s bad form to cheer your own victory too loudly. The first Duke of Wellington said “next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle gained”, whereas Sir Winston Churchill put it as “in victory, magnanimity”. The noble thing to do is to acknowledge the other person’s efforts and to demonstrate your greatness by being magnanimous, rather than proclaiming your greatness in words.
Perhaps we Brits are more interested in how you win than in whether; as an example, I’m prouder of my countryman Max Whitlock for standing to one side and letting the Brazilian gymnasts take centre stage for their celebration of the silver and bronze medals than I am of his winning Team GB’s first ever Olympic gold in gymnastics. That showed character and class, that did.
But be that as it may, we’re probably not going to be toppling the Americans from their pole position in Olympic medal tables any time soon. On the other hand, we did exceptionally well in London four years ago, and so far we’re doing astoundingly well again this year, without even the “boost” of being the host nation. Nothing in the US’ national culture automatically slates their athletes for victory, any more than being British is a recipe for automatic athletic disaster. London opened the door, and now a new generation of rising stars have the modern training and competition facilities and the renewed emphasis on sports that will be the Games’ enduring legacy to the country. Four years later, and if the Rio Games continue as they have done up to this point, it looks like we may well eclipse our medal performance in London. Despite a sort of collective sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, perhaps we know that victory is possible now.
But of course also, the Americans continue to lead the field in medal counts. That’s not going to change any time soon; unlike the Soviet and Chinese governments who groom children for particular medal success, the USA has never needed to bother because Americans will do it to themselves.
The American determination to win and succeed is one of the truly great things about their nation as a whole. As I’ve shown, it’s not without its downsides, but what can occasionally look like arrogance to the rest of the world is usually just individual Americans honestly expressing their Americanness. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’d suspect that Britons may hold together better when the chips are really down, but let’s not have any non-sporting national showdowns any time soon, ok?