“Can we have two golds?” Mutaz Barshim of Qatar’s words during the men’s high jump competition, spoken to the friend with whom he was tied in first place, Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, have surely marked one of the most heartwarming moments of the Olympics so far. They both had achieved jumps of 2.37 metres. They could have settled it with a jump off. But instead, they chose to share, celebrating not only their sporting prowess, but also their friendship. “Sharing with a friend is even more beautiful … It was just magical,” Tamberi said. “This is beyond sport,” Barshim added. “This is the message we deliver to the young generation.”
It may not be in the spirit of ancient Greek heroism – but then we’re not sacrificing oxen in honour of Zeus any more, either. In the modern age, there is a long history of medal sharing, and the Olympic spirit – or Olympism – as established by Pierre de Coubertin emphasised solidarity, peace and humanism. Barshim and Tamberi’s act is hardly out of step with tradition, but it will still have its detractors. It goes against the grain of what spectators have come to expect from elite sport: a narrative where there is one winner, one hero, one champion to rule them all. It’s a poignant gesture in this year in particular, which has seen collective action and solidarity become so important.
Nods to collectivism haven’t only been happening in recent years in the world of sport, but also in the cultural sector. In 2019, all four artists nominated for the Turner prize asked to share it in recognition of “commonality, multiplicity and solidarity”. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani hadn’t met prior to being shortlisted, but that didn’t stop them writing to the judges asking that they be named collective winners.
This was a direct result of the political nature of the shortlisted works, which explored themes of migration, patriarchy, torture and civil rights. It seemed wrong, the artists argued, to pit such varied politics against one another when none was more significant or worthy of attention. To accept the award collectively was a political act intended to highlight cohesion and stand against exclusion in a hostile environment.
The right hated it, of course. Was it just a virtue signal for a snowflake era, asked Telegraph critic Alastair Sooke. “Prizes are meant to sort the wheat from the chaff. Here, though, the judges abdicated their responsibility,” he wrote.
But the people who make art clearly feel differently about how prizes reify ideas of individual success, merit, or genius – and apparently some Olympians do too. Though a prize can make a dramatic difference to an artist’s career, everyone knows that awards are subjective; it’s just that we agree to participate in the fiction. No one truly believes that the novel that wins, for example, the Booker prize in any given year is genuinely the best novel that has been published in Britain that year. It was simply the choice of the people who were in a room together in that time and place, who brought different preferences and life experiences to the table. Hence perhaps the oscillation, depending on the year, between work that is deemed plotty and readable and that which finds itself labelled experimental and therefore difficult.
The rise of identity politics has seen greater public understanding of which artists make history and why, and better efforts to include those who have been traditionally excluded. That’s why the 2019 decision to split the Booker prize between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, the first black woman to win the prize, dismayed so many.
Evaristo herself, who won for the masterful Girl, Woman, Other, took the decision with good grace. Asked if she would have preferred to win the full £50,000, she said: “What do you think? Yes, but I’m happy to share it. That’s the kind of person I am.” For Atwood’s part, she said: “I kind of don’t need the attention, so I am very glad that you’re getting some.”
Of course, sport and art function on different principles. Nonetheless, in both cases success is the result of collaboration. A book is a collaboration between the author and their editor. A race – or a high jump – is the shared endeavour of the athlete and the trainers, coaches and nutritionists behind them. So really, the “one champion” narrative has never quite rung true. As for sharing with competitors, some members of the older generation have long mocked the “everyone’s a winner”/ “it’s the taking part that counts” side of modern parenting, but to me it’s a good thing. Collectivity, solidarity and mutual support aren’t the enemies of success: rather, in many cases, they are its source.