TOPIC GUIDE: Sport and Competition

"In sport, winning is everything"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2008

AUTHOR: David Bowden

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


Even if not everyone is familiar with the name Bishop Ethelbert Talbot, they are familiar with his sentiment that ‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.’ This was adopted as part of the Olympic creed by the founder of the modern Olympiad, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. But try telling that to those celebrating Team GB’s success in the Beijing Olympics. Everyone from footballers to tennis players and even equestrianists are being told to show more competitive ruthlessness as the rest of British sport suffers under a weight of comparative failure. Yet at the same time footballers and cricketers are under fire for showing bad sportsmanship and there are general laments for the loss of fun and decency, which are now a rarity in sport. Ed Smith puts the blame on the rise of professionalism and the loss of amateur principles, but Stephen Jones sees the benefit professionalism has had on rugby union. Behind these debates lurks a lingering tension – what is sport for? Some suggest it is a spectacle, either for entertainment or admiring excellence. Others find its purpose in the transcendence of boundaries and the limits of human potential. The Victorians held it to have a civilising purpose teaching moral principles, and some feel this still has relevance. Today the government chiefly promotes its benefits in terms of tackling obesity, social exclusion and youth crime. Tim Black argues that in using sport as a tool for social engineering we are losing many of the positive inspirational attributes associated with competition, while David Mitchell wonders whether this is a price worth paying. Is winning (and losing) integral to the purpose and pleasure of sport, or can we still get those benefits through non-competition?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What does sporting success mean to us?
The 2003 Rugby World Cup, the 2005 Ashes…Beijing 2008? Despite one-off successes, national teams and performers have had little sustained sporting success recently – Andrew Anthony bemoans the English acceptance of failure and celebration of losers instead of their outrage at national mismanagement and collective lack of ambition. But Richard Beard argues that it is only arrogance which leads us to demand victories we have no right to expect. Does Britain really want winners? In swimming, the ‘tough-guy’ coach Bill Sweetenham faced criticism for his severe methods. But the performance of the GB team in 2008 shows he got results. Nicky Campbell bemoaned the lack of emphasis on competitive sport in schools, but Clint Witchalls feels that elitism prevents all but the best from enjoying and maintaining an interest in sport. Do we have to choose between cultivating victorious sports teams and trying to make sure every child takes part in regular exercise? Ariel Leve points out that even top Olympians invariably lose, but they still go out and compete. Can competition – when handled by responsible coaches – actually inspire broader participation?

Everyone loves a winner?
If sport were simply about winning, then the most successful figures would surely be cherished icons. But despite his status as the most successful Olympian of all time, Simon Barnes had to defend Michael Phelps against charges of being boring – and that nearly every great champion is hated as much as they’re respected. In almost every case they defeated beloved English icons frequently praised for their decency and fair play: Tim Henman (Sampras), Gary Lineker (Maradona) and English cricketers (West Indies). Duleep Allirajah makes the point that only losers are concerned with sportsmanship – which is why the British fetishise it. But Barnes could counter that there have been many ‘nice guys’ who also finished first. Do we want sport stars who seek to win at almost any price, including bending if not breaking the rules, or is there something less satisfying about a victory that hasn’t been won in the ‘right’ way? If she had knocked her rival off as well at Beijing would Gordon Brown be praising Shanaze Reade’s ‘gold or nothing’ approach?

To cheat or not to cheat?
Cheating has already ruined many sports, says Martin Jacques, and will only get worse as more money becomes involved. Drugs scandals and blatant illegality ruin the ethos and spectacle of competition. But David Lacey observes that the rules of sport can be arbitrary and transitory, and there is a difference between cheating and bending them to the absolute limit – the former spoils the game, while the latter is as much a sporting skill as technical ability or stamina. The economist Stephen J. Dubner wonders whether the ‘cat-and-mouse’ element to cheating rows actually complements the drama of sport – in which case we need cheats as much as honest competitors. David Hopps observes that gamesmanship can often inspire the opposition as much as it benefits you. Chei Amlani feels that rule-bending has always had a place in sport, that we should expect professional sportspeople to do everything to win, and that it is the authorities’ job to stop them. But can it go too far? While Harbhajan Singh was cleared of using racist language, can we distinguish between ‘mental attrition’ and offensive abuse? What kind of example are the professionals setting to impressionable youngsters?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Born to lose

Andrew Anthony Observer Sport Monthly 25 November 2007

Knocking school sports for six

Tim Black spiked 23 October 2007


The joy of Michael Phelps’ epic journey

Simon Barnes The Times 14 August 2008

Forget sportsmanship – it’s all about winning

Duleep Allirajah spiked 11 July 2008

Winners don’t always play by the rules

Terence Blacker Independent 11 April 2008

The joy of winning is nothing without the trauma of losing

Nicky Campbell Guardian 19 July 2007


Cassandra: Losers are the unsung heroes of sport

Ariel Leve The Sunday Times 17 August 2008

Britain is not ghastly enough to spawn winners

David Mitchell Guardian 26 June 2008

Why I want to ban sports day

Clint Witchalls Guardian 14 July 2004


Sledging reaches a tipping point

Mike Atherton Telegraph 13 January 2008

The mysterious unfairness of grace

Catherine Fox The Times 28 July 2007

Is it only cheating if you get caught?

Chei Amlani Blog 26 August 2006


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The English: Sports mad or daft losers?

Matt Dickinson The Times 8 July 2008

Freakonomics: Is cheating good for sports?

Stephen J. Dubner The New York Times Blog 21 February 2008

Size matters in international rugby

Stephen Jones The Sunday Times 3 February 2008

Nice guys can finish first, but not if you play for Australia

Simon Barnes The Times 21 January 2008

Time to clamp down on the gamesmanship

David Hopps Guardian Sport Blog 31 July 2007

The Olympic Symbols

Olympic Museum 2007

Ubiquitous cheating means sport is no longer a level playing field

Martin Jacques Guardian comment is free 19 August 2006

Deceived by a glimpse of greatness

Simon Barnes The Times 16 March 2006

The Athens Olympics

BBC November 2004

Should champions be hated? The ayes have it

Simon Barnes The Times 30 April 2004

Boyz with bats

Edward Smith Prospect March 1999

Beijing Blog

Simon Barnes The Times

Extra Time

The Independent

Olympic blog

Geoff Kidder Culture Wars

The inside line on sport

Mihir Bose BBC Sport


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

British athletes ‘to get honours’

BBC News 23 August 2008

Reade crashes out of BMX finals

BBC Sport 22 August 2008

Time to show ref some respect

Paul Wilson Observer 10 August 2008

Cheats may kill off sport, says WADA chief

Simon Turnbull Independent 8 August 2008

Murray looks to improve behaviour

BBC Sport 20 May 2008

Wenger insists that ‘winning is not everything’

Jason Burt Independent 8 March 2008

Harbhajan was lucky, says judge

BBC News 30 January 2008

‘Bullying’ casts shadow over cricket

Rohit Brijnath BBC News 11 January 2008

Show bad sports the red card

Independent 22 April 2007

Competitive sport is ‘essential’

BBC News 1 February 2007

Davies backs Sweetenham

BBC Sport 10 January 2006

Sweetenham is cleared of bullying

BBC Sport 4 January 2006

Sport cheats ‘set bad example’

BBC News 22 September 2005


This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.

© 2005-2022 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login