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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
The art of coming second
England rugby team

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Within 24 hours the England rugby union team and Lewis Hamilton had been pipped to glory. Coming second is so bittersweet, but is it losing or nearly winning?

In Paris and in Sao Paulo, it was the same story.

A nation's hopes of glory foundered upon the smallest of margins. A few millimetres of chalk in the corner of the Stade de France, touched by Mark Cueto's left boot, and a momentary glitch in a gear box 9,400km away at Interlagos.

The drama of each battle was played out to millions of viewers but all that the record books will remember are the names of Kimi Raikkonen and South Africa. The winners.

John Regis
Second is first loser. You always want to win and you train to win
John Regis
Former sprinter
The English, not for the first time, are second. The rugby union team and Hamilton join Arsenal and Liverpool among the ranks of nearly men after those clubs lost the last two Champions League finals, although Scousers will be quick to point out they won it three years ago.

Some fans would celebrate their team coming second, saying it marks a fantastic effort in high-profile and competitive sports to get so far and outrank some worthy opponents.

But for professional players and athletes - and some seasoned supporters - taking pleasure in coming second is never acceptable.

Former England rugby union hooker Brian Moore threw away his runner-up medal after defeat to Australia in the World Cup final in 1991. For him, it was nothing to cherish.

And Bill Shankly, when Liverpool manager, once said: "If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing."

1993 World Championships 200m final
Regis (left) was beaten by Fredericks
John Regis lost by a metre to Frankie Fredericks in the 200m final at the World Championships in 1993 and 14 years on he says he is still haunted about how he could have better executed the race. Setting a British record, beating track icon Carl Lewis and getting a silver medal was no consolation.

"Second is first loser. You always want to win and you train to win. No-one trains to come second so it's a really difficult position to be in.

"You're on the rostrum so it's not the end of the world but you're one position away from greatness. It's a good performance but you train for a great performance."

Jimmy White played glorious snooker and won 22 titles but instead will be remembered for six times coming second in the World Championship.

That hasn't diminished his popularity. Quite the reverse, it has probably enhanced it, for glorious failure is something the British are happy to embrace.

Bulldog spirit

Regis believes there is a gap between this mentality and the mindset of the majority of athletes, who just want to win.

"The public appreciate what they perceive as great performances. Joe Public doesn't train as hard as you do and when they see on television someone on the rostrum, they're happy for us and we're not ungrateful for that.

"But what in their eyes may be a great performance you know to be only a reasonable one."

Being runner-up is a greater achievement than being knocked out in the first round but it is also more painful because victory is within reach, he says. This makes the chasm between first and second far wider than between any other places.

The ones that wallow in a lack of winning are ones that never achieve success
Psychologist Cary Cooper
The manner of defeat can magnify the pain, such as Milan throwing away a 3-0 lead against Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2005 and Newcastle famously losing a 12-point lead in the Premiership a decade earlier, after a televised outburst by manager Kevin Keegan.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University, says the reason why the nation has responded so warmly to the rugby team's defeat is because expectations were low.

"The mood is 'didn't we do well', rather than 'we blew it again'. It's not despondency it's 'we can build on this'.

"Reaching down into the depths for a team that wasn't rated in the top two or top four, pulling it out and showing the bulldog spirit will give everyone heart."

England captain Phil Vickery
Is Vickery reflecting on bitter defeat or an honourable second place?
In many sports like football the expectation is to win at all costs, he says, possibly because of the country's imperial past, and this puts a burden on a players. But in countries successful at sport, like Australia, the hype can galvanise players to succeed.

Coming second is always better than third or fourth, he says, and can provide a good platform for later triumphs.

"Most people who are a success in life have setbacks and have the resilience to come back. The ones that wallow in a lack of winning are ones that never achieve success."

Below is a selection of your comments:

John Regis' attitude is healthy for him as an individual athlete but a terrible one to carry over into general everyday life. The attitude that England, or anyone else, should always expect to win only leads to bitter disappointment. Much better to know that you gave your best. Then win or lose you could have done no more.
Bill Scott, Edinburgh

No one will know better than the sportsmen involved that second place is meaningless. To compete is to win, anything else means that you lost. That is not to say that it is a personal or team disgrace to finish second, it just means that you lost, the best of the losers. No one wants it, not the sportsmen nor the fans. I took part in competitive sport for a long time, largely winning. For me second place was no better than 3rd, 4th or 105th. Win or lose, there is no grey area!
Sean, Ipswich

"Play up, play up and play the game" As long as the game is fair, losing is no disgrace if you have sincerely tried. The obsession with winning (mainly driven by the yobbish football culture and several non-UK million/billionaires) is definitely affecting the natural attitudes of this country. Shame!
Arthur Wellesley, London, UK

It is so sad that we cannot celebrate our achievements. It's not first but we are before all the others bar one. That is a success in the world. It saddens me to see silly quibbles over lines and engines. We should be proud and pleased, ready to take it one step further next time, not pathetic sore losers. It makes me embarrassed to be English sometimes with the current mentality.
Emily, Bristol

It sounds harsh but winning is paramount in sport these days because the more you win, the more you earn. It's the "taking part that counts" attitude that holds people back; when taking part just divides the amateurs from the pro's.
A Andrews, Cardiff, Wales

What a fantastic achievement this rugby squad has delivered. From no-hopers at 80-1 to losing finalists. Being 2nd in the world of rugby nations is excellent. Particularly in the aftermath of 2003 when the RFU has misorganised just about everything possible. These guys did it despite nonsensical structuring and posturing at the top.
Jim, Birmingham UK

It's tough coming second and to be gracious losers is to acknowledge that the team that won, won fair and square. Today I have yet to have conversation with an Englishmen who admits the best team won. I am appalled at the lack of press coverage the winners have got. Their hard work and dedication has NOT been recognised by the British media, there are no pictures of the winners holding the cup even on the second pages and here I thought we were playing in the World Cup not the England cup. Even though there are hundred of thousands of South Africa living in the UK we have to read our local news sites and paper to get an even perspective of the game. You guys make me sick, if South Africa had lost to the English I am sure our sorrow would have been splashed all over the place. From a very, very, very happy South African!
John McClaine, UK

To call these men heroes is an insult to our servicemen and women who face death almost daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. These players are paid vast sums of money, thank God they came second and now we won't have to suffer another four years of bleating about their exploits. There were other teams in the tournament but the English press was all about England. Back to the drawing board.
David Jones, Ammanford Wales

David Jones, behave yourself. That comment is in strict sporting terms and have you not seen the enjoyment the rugby team, scarping through each round to the final, gave our active servicemen? On a separate note, Brian Moore did not throw his medal into the Thames - he admitted such on TV saying it was simply something he said at the time. However it does sum up the mindset and that is the key issue to hand.
Gregory Irgin, London

Call me biased but once again I find myself amazed at just how many sports this country finds time in which to participate at the highest level. Name a genuinely international sport that we don't have a team at a decent level. Even sports such as tennis (where we are now in the world group) and basketball are on the up. We may not actually win much, but 100 varied and unpredictable second places must go some way to assauging that pain.
Thomas, London, UK

Well we did better than nearly 200 other countries at two sports - not bad for a small Island!
Paul, Reading

In both the cases of the England rugby team and Lewis Hamilton, there is no shame in defeat. I am bursting with pride at the way England came back from a terrible start to the campaign and an appalling four years since we lifted the trophy in Sydney. They delivered above and beyond all our expectations and I am so proud of how they have handled themselves and let the rugby do the talking. It wasn't pretty at times, but we ground out the win and claimed some huge scalps along the way. Hamilton has also exceeded expectations, finishing second in a world championship in his first season. Is this the best ever start for a rookie?? Nothing to be ashamed of here, I am proud, proud, proud to call myself English.
Nikki , Ruislip, UK

Interesting that the article quotes Australia as a country "successful at sport". Aside from cricket and swimming, Australia isn't really in the running for any global sport these days, certainly not rugby union, football or motor racing. It seems the cultural-sporting cringe is alive and well in the other direction these days!
The Landlord, London

I spoke to the runner Roger Black a few years ago, and he told me he considered his silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics (behind Michael Johnson) to be his greatest achievement, above for example his relay gold in Tokyo in 1991. So, it depends on the athlete and the circumstances. I think England's performance was a brilliant one.
James, Cambridge

As Vince Lombardi, the great American football coach, once put it: "Winning isn't everything, but wanting to win is."
Ben, London, UK

Lawyers, true to form, have a pet term to cover for coming second: "proxime accessit". As in "England Rugby: proxime accessit World Cup 2007" or "Lewis Hamilton: proxime accessit, F1 Champion 2007". Sounds impressive, no?
G Hudson, Oxford UK

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