This is based on an article that appeared in the The Daily Telegraph by Allister Heath, City A.M. Editor
It’s time Britain celebrated all of its winners – whether they are Olympians or business leaders
Faster, higher, stronger: there is something truly magnificent about the Olympic virtues, those principles famously enunciated by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, in 1894.
He understood that human beings only genuinely realise their destiny when they push themselves to the very limit; it is perhaps no wonder that he wrote his manifesto at a time of extraordinary optimism about the future of civilisation.
When it comes to sport, contemporary Britain wholeheartedly subscribes to the Olympic values: the past few days have seen them inspire and unite our nation. We do still have a soft spot for losers, of course, but then de Coubertin himself acknowledged that “the most important thing is not to win, but to take part”.
However, we love winners even more: world records are greeted with jubilation and our medallists treated like heroes, showered with praise and (eventually) rewarded with honours.
Celebrate sporting success, despise business success?
Yet these core Olympian values all of us admire unquestioningly – meritocracy, competition, discipline, elitism, the pursuit of excellence and the quest for victory in a global showdown between the best of the best – are met with far greater ambivalence when practised in other spheres, not least in business. This is a strange paradox, a fundamental inconsistency in our national culture that is holding Britain back.
There are crucial parallels between the virtues that drive sporting excellence and those that lead to business success and economic growth. Entrepreneurs and business leaders get rich, create thousands of jobs and boost the pension funds of millions by trying to excel, striving relentlessly to defeat their competitors, and through extreme dedication and hard work.
Yet we are suspicious of commercial success, which is inevitably dismissed as motivated by greed or ego, even though the personality traits, values and the belief that work is good in itself, that cause greatness in sport, are little different to those that lead to triumph in business.
Entrepreneurial success, not fat cats taking the cream
What we are talking about it entrepreneurial success. Setting up and growing a business. Taking an idea and turning it into a commercial success. Taking a personal risk and having the courage to make a different.
This could not be more different from the appalling, egotistical and callous greed of the bankers like Bob Diamond.
Now is the time to change
The Olympics are the perfect occasion to engineer another such intellectual shift. The values we are all cheering are the opposite of the relativistic, egalitarian ones that dominate the public discourse in other fields, including, increasingly, in the way popular culture views business.
Sport success rightly prompts admiration, but business success triggers jealousy and anger, demands for retribution and redistribution. We listen to activists who claim that inequality is bad for happiness when it comes to economic outcomes – but we rightly ignore calls for an “all-must-have-prizes culture” in sport, where we don’t seek to penalise and hold back the best.
Academic success – a key determinant of young people’s career prospects – is still ridiculed as nerdy in many quarters. An athlete who dedicates her life to beating the world record is lauded as single-minded, while an ambitious executive who clocks up a 60-hour week in the pursuit of business excellence is criticised for an inadequate work-life balance. All of this misplaced support for the lowest common denominator is a major cultural block to our economic renaissance.
Inspiring sportsmen AND business people, entrepreneurs, scientists
It is wonderful that Rebecca Adlington has inspired many to take up her sport. But we should equally celebrate those who are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of business people, entrepreneurs or scientists; the inclusion of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Tim Berners-Lee in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was a step in the right direction.
While it is good that politicians are trying to use the Games to sell the UK to foreign investors, Britain’s economy will prosper only if we learn to love success, hard work and the pursuit of excellence in all of its forms, not just tolerate it grudgingly.
Government reforms required
There are several reforms the Government should adopt, in addition to waging a war against mediocrity. It must push through supply-side reforms to remove unnecessary constraints facing those trying to build world-class businesses and to make sure they are rewarded for their efforts.
It must root out artificial barriers to competition. It must promote social mobility by accelerating its education and welfare reforms, to make sure everybody has an opportunity to fulfil their potential and, in de Coubertin’s words, “to take part.” It must also ensure that there is room for genuine compassion in the more competitive society created in this way.
Economic policy must find fresh inspiration in sporting culture. This would guarantee an Olympic legacy like no other, and help embed the Games’ core values deep into British culture, making us a better and more prosperous nation.