The Guardian, Monday 20 August 2012
Team GB’s medal winners have already been rewarded – demands for knighthoods and damehoods reflect our culture of excess
The Olympic feelgood factor hasn’t quite faded and some people are trying to preserve it with a new demand: honour for athletes. Surely, the argument runs, Team GB’s unprecedented success in the 2012 games deserves to be recognised in the New Year’s honours list? Lord Moynihan, outgoing head of the British Olympic Association, has led the calls with a a suggestion that every single gold medallist deserves ‘recognition’.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard demands for knighthoods for top athletes: breathless sports commentators are already pressing politicians to create “Sir” Bradley Wiggins and “Sir” Mo Farah. Indeed Jonathan Stephens, a civil servant at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, seems to have caused annoyance and disbelief in equal measure when he tried to dampen public expectations by saying that not all 43 medal winners would get “automatic gongs”.
It is bad luck for the athletes in question that their sporting success has come at a moment when there’s been another, if very limited, review of the honours system. The government seems keen to update it, moving away from a model in which senior civil servants automatically expect knighthoods and damehoods to one where awards are based on “excellence and selfless voluntary service”. Weirdly, David Cameron has also chosen this year to re-introduce the British Empire medal, a “reform” that goes in precisely the opposite direction of what’s actually needed.
One of the reasons I turned down an MBE is 2003 is that I didn’t want to accept an award that makes reference to so many institutions – God, the monarch and the British empire – I’m not keen on. (“For God and the empire” is its motto and you receive it from a member of the royal family.) It’s a reflection of an honours system that is both hopelessly out of date and deeply confused, as the current row about Britain’s Olympic athletes demonstrates. Among many incongruities is the notion of awarding the pompous title of “Sir” to someone like Wiggins, who seems refreshingly unaffected by his stellar fame and success.
The British athletes who won medals certainly fall into the government’s preferred category of “excellence”, although they’re far from selfless. No one trains as hard as a professional athlete, and for so long, for altruistic reasons. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of single-mindedness – or with the sponsorship deals that follow sporting success – but over-valuing it risks losing sights of other kinds of achievement. Team GB’s medal winners have already been rewarded – that’s what medals are for – and enjoy massive public acclaim.
It could be argued that someone from a poor background, who trained for years and missed a medal because they happened to have an off day, is as worthy of recognition from the state as someone who’s got a gold. Success isn’t everything and endless demands for honours for athletes (or TV presenters such as Bruce Forsyth) are symptomatic of a culture of excess, where individual ambition is over-rewarded. That’s an endemic problem with the current honours system, which hands out the same rewards to pop stars, athletes, retired politicians and people who’ve done voluntary work. Not long after I was offered an honour for services to human rights, I was bemused to see one of my favourite shoe designers accept a similar gong for services, presumably, to footwear.
I’ve nothing against an honours system which allows the state, on behalf of the public, to thank people who’ve made a difference. But I’m uneasy about a kind of inflation that continually lowers the bar, throwing honours around in a way that seems more appropriate to a popularity contest. There should be room in an honours system to recognise personal success, but it should mainly be an expression of the country’s values. Let’s celebrate altruism, courage in the face of adversity, service to the community – and leave gold medals for athletes.