Before we dive in, consider these quotes:

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby, fictional racecar driver in Talladega Nights

“Second place is the first loser.” – Dale Earnhardt, Sr., professional racecar driver in real life

“Real sporting champions don’t celebrate coming 3rd.” – Piers Morgan, professional grouch?

Recognize them? The first two have been around for years; the third since the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, which just ended. It may seem like they are expressing a similar sentiment, but I don’t think so.

I love Talladega Nights, have watched it countless times, and laugh every time at that line, and all the others. Because they are jokes. It’s funny because it’s not true. Dale Earnhardt’s famous declaration was self-deprecating, in part a humorous take on his own record of 70 second place finishes in NASCAR.

Piers? His point is that only first is winning and only winning deserves to be celebrated. If you didn’t win, you should be disappointed, not celebratory. He doubled down on this idea when commenting on British cycling silver medalists Laura and Jason Kenny and 800m silver medalist—and new British record-holder—Keely Hodgkinson.  

In my book? No. No. No. He is wrong, plain and simple. This is negative to the core and the complete opposite of what the Olympics represent.

Citius, Altius, Fortius – Swifter, Higher, Stronger

The Olympic Motto

The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.

The Olympic Creed

Please note that the motto does not mention being swiftest, or the “est” of anything. It talks about potential, the potential to do more or better, not necessarily best. The creed explicitly says that being first is not the most important thing; it is not the point. The Olympics showcase tremendous achievement and success, and not all of it is measured in gold medals, or medals at all.

Success includes returning from career threatening injuries simply to compete in the Olympics. It is fighting through pain to complete your race or routine. It is training for years, sacrificing for the love of the sport, and the honor of representing your country in the Olympics, with no expectation or chance of winning at all.

What kind of winning is worthy of celebration? For some people it’s not the silver medal that Rai Benjamin won in the 400m men’s hurdles behind gold medal winner Karsten Warholm of Norway, after both of them beat the previous world record. Or American Dalilah Muhammad, who finished second to another American, Sydney McLaughlin, in the women’s version—both of them beat the world record for their event as well. No bronze medalists for sure. The Olympic high jumpers from Qatar and Italy, friends who tied and decided to share the gold medal? Piers wasn’t happy about that either. He is correct to point out that no one but gold medalists technically “won,” but what a dismal, limiting view of what deserves celebration and why.

Many athletes use the drive for first place as a motivating factor. The idea that they won’t settle for anything but first is a way to help them achieve their best, and that’s fine, especially if it works. But those same people usually recognize that success is not only measured in firsts. Hitting your goal, achieving a personal best, winning your country’s first or only medal, simply competing in the Olympics: all are worthy of celebration. Always, but especially after the year that we have just had.

I don’t want to live life that way. To be fair, Piers was specifically calling out sports and athletes, and not everyday life, but it’s just too easy for the sentiment to bleed into other areas. I feel like there is already too much of a “winning is everything” attitude these days. A focus on being #1. Life is not a zero-sum game, and not only the winners deserve to celebrate. It would be a sadder world if we took that attitude.

I want to live in a world where we celebrate as much as possible. Where we encourage each other and recognize the achievements of everyone. I want the world to celebrate when we do our best, not just the best. How about you?

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