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The perils of competition

We admire Olympic athletes for their single-minded will to win—but focusing too much on success can be unhealthy

By Charlotte Tuxworth-Holden  

Michael Phelps of the United States wins the Men's 200m Individual Medley final, at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on day six of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Everyone knows someone, or perhaps several people, who gets upset while losing a supposedly friendly game of Monopoly. In fact, most games of Monopoly, or Scrabble, or Pictionary involve objections and complaints from players who fall behind, and smugness from the winners. Cue unfriendly accusations, raised voices and door-slamming. Games designed to be fun make people genuinely angry. Why? It boils down to an essential element of humanity: competitiveness.

Recognised as an essential and healthy part of society, competition surrounds us. We might not want to admit it, but everyone possesses an urge to be special: to be the one who gets that university place, who gets that job offer, the one who wins. Success is a form of self-affirmation: our achievements make us the upwardly mobile individuals society teaches us to be. Two thousand years ago, Olympic athletes in Ancient Greece ran, jumped and wrestled their way to sporting glory. Today in Rio de Janeiro at the current Olympics, athletes compete with the same goals: to be the best, to earn a legacy.

The dominant narrative of competition as necessary as well as beneficial is true in many cases: winning and losing are an essential part of living. Competitive sports are often used as ice-breaking events at schools and university societies, and they are mostly effective because they unite people in a common goal: to be winners. I say mostly, though, because we shouldn’t forget those who loathe sports. Personally speaking, I can’t think of a worse bonding activity than scrambling round a pop-up assault course. At school, dreading the forced fun of competitive sports, I always tried my best to get out of them. But I suspect I was in a minority. Most of my peers beamed with enthusiasm throughout, barking instructions at one another, high-fiving and whooping each other’s successes and exulting in their opponent’s failures.

But for all its benefits, we have to recognise that competition can turn sour. Think of the recent EU referendum campaign: we saw politicians competing viciously for political glory with scant attention paid to the facts. The referendum was marked by competition that became poisonous, sneering, divisive—and far from healthy.

The problem with competition is that it creates two categories: winners and losers. While this is a fact of life and always has been so, the stakes are higher these days. Being a winner is becoming harder and harder. This year, for example, top graduate employers reported that applications have gone up by 13 per cent since 2015. Next year, this figure will undoubtedly rise again, along with the number of unsuccessful applicants.

More and more people competing for the top spots increases resentment. A 2014 study carried out by theQuarterly Journal of Economics describes the phenomenon of “last-place aversion.” Looking at wealth distribution, it found that people earning just above the minimum wage were less likely to favour its increase. These people didn’t want to lose the sense of superiority they felt by not being on “minimum wage.” In other words, If you earned £10 an hour and the minimum wage was £7.50, you have the psychological comfort of knowing that you are not the worst off.

Gore Vidal famously said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” And as the goal of winning becomes harder to achieve, our desire for others to lose increases. Far from the friendly (if feisty) competition of board games and team sports, the current ultra-competitive climate produces a mood of sour resentment. The world is fast, and while the competitive spirit cannot be stamped out, patience can be revitalised. It’s not always about separating winners and losers—success should be a long-term goal, and failures in the short term may in fact lead us to our calling.

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