Thursday, 1 November 2012

Winners Are Grinners

There is an interesting essay podcast on the Radio 3 website, dealing with
the subject of luck. The person who presents it tells us that he was the UK's No.1 table tennis player, an achievement that he used to believe was a result of his speed, guile, gutsiness, agility, adaptability, skill and natural talent. He then discovered that almost all the top table tennis players in the UK came from the same region. Furthermore, they all came from the same town. Not just the same town in fact, but the same street - Silverdale Road - and the same school.

At that school was a teacher named Peter Charters who was a brilliant coach and who persuaded the school to set aside a practise hall for table tennis players, open round the clock. This provided the perfect environment for potential champion table tennis players. They could train every day, they all pushed each other through competition, each of them became better than they ever might have, thanks to the opportunity presented by this unique set of circumstances.

What the essay presenter also discovered was that, had he lived one door further down the road, he would not have been eligible to attend the school where Peter Charters taught and where the practise hall was available. This was a particularly sobering realisation. It made him think about countries like India, which has an enormous population but a tiny profile in world sport - it came 55th at the recent Olympics and its athletes were unable to achieve even one gold medal. There must in fact be millions of unfulfilled champions over there, unable to explore their own potential. Clearly it was not enough to be talented. To be a champion, although few who are champions realise it, you need luck.

At least though in sport, if you do get lucky and manage to be born in the right place, the results are clearcut and unarguable. There is nothing subjective about who runs fastest in a race. In many other arenas, however, things are not as easily decided. The inexact science of selecting people for jobs by interviewing them , for example, often leads to what appear to be very unfair decisions. Adding references to the equation rarely improves things - the famous 'You will be very, very lucky if you can get this person to work for you' comment springs readily to mind in this context.

Similarly, the results of competitions like the Booker Prize really boil down to a combination of the judges' personal taste and the need to reach a consensus. On a small scale, I am reminded of the impossibility of justice in these kinds of judgements every time I watch the wonderful Gruen Planet, which includes each week a competition between two advertising agencies to pitch for a seemingly impossible campaign. So often, it seems to me that the winning pitch is not the best one. Here's an example:

The one that lost was robbed, I reckon. But ultimately, I suppose, them's the breaks.

(Unsurprisingly, Randy Newman said it better than me.)


  1. Ha, I thought they both rather good! (Oh how I miss the Australian accent...)

    1. If you want more, all the pitches from earlier programmes are there for you to download, with genuine Australian accents to go.