Build or burn?

It’s a knockout and a winning culture

When I was a kid growing up in the seventies, there was a TV show that the whole family enjoyed called It’s a Knockout.  It consisted of teams playing silly games like trying walk across a pole suspended over water while players from the other side turned a handle, or filled a vessel with water that, when filled, would turn the pole and tip the player into the water; or people wearing huge foam suits trying to prevent players from the other team running back and forth to score points.  It was hilarious and it was made funnier because the presenter, Stuart Hall (of whom, more later), had an infectious laugh, the kind that makes you laugh without knowing the joke.

The winning team would represent the UK in an international version of It’s a Knockout, a sort of Eurovision song contest for silly games.  My recollection of this was that the UK was frequently last.  I used to ask myself how we managed to perform so poorly in a game that required no skill and was just a bit of fun.  Even to my young mind, our performance seemed to sum up a sort of losing mentality that was prevalent at the time where just taking part was enough, winning wasn’t important.  This mentality could be summed up as amateurism.

Fast forward to July 2005 and the competition to host the 2012 Olympics.  London was bidding but Paris was the favourite.  I recall where I was when I heard that London had won.  For me it marked a moment when Britain finally had a winning culture that was strong enough to see off the old enemy from the days of It’s a Knockout.  In the 30 years since the mid-seventies, British attitudes to competition changed.  The new mentality can be summed up as professionalism.

Professionalism costs money and the change began in the eighties where the Thatcher revolution allowed managers to start managing again.  The attitude was cemented in the nineties when Tony Blair’s government embraced free markets.   Count the sporting achievements since those changes:

  • 2003 – England wins Rugby world cup against Australia, in Australia.
  • 2005 – England wins the cricket Ashes series after nearly two decades
  • 2008 – Britain is 4th in the medal table of the Beijing Olympics
  • 2012 – Team Sky wins the Tour de France, first British win in over 100 years
  • 2012 – Britain is 3rd in medal table of the London Olympics
  • 2016 – Britain is 2nd in medal table if the Rio de Janeiro Olympics


People like Sir Clive Woodward (rugby) and Sir David Brailsford (cycling) embody this new era of professionalism.  While the losing/amateur mentality is forgiving of underperformance, the winning/professional mentality is unsentimental about focusing on only those with the greatest chances of success and letting everyone else hang.  It combines mental toughness with meticulous preparation and unapologetic philosophy of ‘to those that have, more shall be given’.

By 2005 the country had a winning culture but the change had been seeded over decades.  Since then we’ve had the worst financial crisis since the 1930’s, the Euro has suffered the Greek sovereign debt crisis.  If that affected our financial confidence, then political confidence has been rocked by the expenses scandal and the Brexit vote, and cultural confidence has been shaken by sexual scandals of Jimmy Saville and Harvey Weinstein.  The presenter of It’s a Knockout, Stuart Hall, has multiple convictions for indecently assaulting children.

In 2018 it feels like a moment when the winning culture we have now is under threat.  But I’m optimistic.   I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when France could easily knock us off our perch with a huge foam bat, do we?

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