Should Olympic gold medallists automatically be recognised in the Honours System, or should honours should only go to athletes who have ‘given something back’ to society? The discussion means reflecting on what we value and who we should honour

Thought for the Day 21/08/2012



Who should we honour? That’s the question behind the debate about whether Olympic gold medallists should automatically be recognised in the Honours System, or if honours should go to people who have also ‘given something back’ to society. I’m glad to hear the reports that the bodies who make official recommendations seem reluctant to give a gong to everyone who already has a gold medal. It shows that, as a nation, we’re willing to reflect on what we value.

‘Honour’, like ‘nobility’ has always been an ambiguous term, indicating a person’s social standing and also the virtues they display. As these are rather different criteria, it’s no wonder that there’s disagreement about who deserves to be recognised.

Honours such as the MBE and OBE derive from the system of military rewards that sometimes go with rank, but also recognise exceptional courage or endurance. In the aftermath of the First World War George V extended the system to non-combatants by founding the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire with its members, officers, commanders, knights and dames. Here, too, the idea was to recognise both achievements and the personal qualities they express.

According to the early Buddhist scriptures, similar debates occurred in the Buddha’s time. In their accounts he pushes people to say whether they think qualities like honour are a matter of status or if they depend on individual virtue. His listeners invariably reply that what they really admire is a person’s intelligence or bravery or some other quality. The Buddha concludes that true merit lies in a person’s state of mind, regardless of their social standing or achievements. The core virtues he identifies include generosity, ethics, patience, energy, wisdom and loving-kindness. He suggests that we should honour people who possess such qualities above those who are merely attractive or successful, and that doing so is essential for a society’s health.

Deciding who’s virtuous is an individual judgement, and you can hardly give someone an OBE for wisdom. But, if it’s correct that those responsible for making the awards are looking for signs that athletes have helped others in their sport or the wider community, they may be attempting something similar.

The admiration we pile on our sportsmen suggests that we want them to be not just winners, but heroes; and there’s more to being a hero than simply coming first. I think we admire the determination and skill that got them there and the modesty or dignity they display in victory. Perhaps we want them to be not just good athletes but good people.