A question of character and value

By Mark Laidlaw

If to be meritorious is to be deserving of praise, then what does one do to be meritorious and is it context-dependent?  Throughout this discussion, “merit” has been used synonymously with “reward” whereas others, with whom I tend to agree, see “merit” as a more virtuous quality.

Adam de Pencier, Head of Trafalgar Castle School, discusses the Olympic competitive motto of “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger) as the criteria for athletic merit, but it seems that even the International Olympic Committee does not live by those criteria alone.  We have all heard of disgraced athletes being stripped of their titles, medals, and rewards because of performance-enhancing drugs or because of cheating through other methods.  Clearly, there is at least one more criterion by which the IOC judges merit: one must achieve his or her results through fair means.

Another criterion that is far more difficult to measure, but which has also been employed by the IOC, is that of character.  Does one deserve to win—or rather, does one deserve praise—strictly because he or she has fairly gone faster, higher, or stronger than his or her competitors?  Again, it seems not.  At the 2012 London Olympics, a number of athletes, including Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou, were banned for racist or otherwise offensive comments.  German rower Nadja Drygalla was also sent home early (though she was allowed to compete) because of allegations that her boyfriend was involved with a neo-Nazi group.  Despite the fact that these athletes had not broken any rules of competition, nor had they unfairly achieved any result, the IOC and the German Olympic federation decided on moral grounds that these athletes did not deserve praise or the opportunity to compete for the Olympic title.

Much like the IOC, I admit that I have a very tough time watching such athletes as Terrell Owens, Barry Bonds, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Mike Tyson, or Allen Iverson earn lucrative professional sport contracts because their behaviours are rude and insulting, while their characters are, at best, objectionable.  To me, they do not deserve to be rewarded for behaving in such a way.  That, however, moves into the area of justice and is perhaps a different branch of the same topic.  In the context of sport alone, yes, they deserve their contracts because they are phenomenal athletes.  When taken into a more general context of social justice and societal value, I would argue that they do not deserve praise.

Lincoln Caylor, member of the Board of Directors of Youth Employment Services, stated that “there must be goodness for there to be merit” and I agree with that statement.  Unfortunately, if we are to consider merit strictly as reward, then one cannot argue with awarding championships or prizes—or merit—to such flawed characters as the aforementioned athletes.  Is that, however, the true meaning of merit?  Do they merit praise?  Have they earned their merits?  I would argue that merit is more of a societal and personal opinion or quality that includes an element of virtuousness.  One can fail and still be meritorious.  One can succeed while not meriting any praise whatsoever.  To me, merit requires that the person receiving praise add some value to his endeavour.  Does an athlete make his sport better?  Does a CEO make his organization better?  Does a Prime Minister make his country better?  If one succeeds but does not add value, then what is the point?  I believe that there is no merit in that.

Merit is not earned through performance alone, but also requires effort, class, respect, desire, and purpose.  I admit that these are qualities that are personal and mutable, but they are important factors to consider.  I believe that this is why the story of the underdog is often so alluring.  We perceive that underdogs require more effort, more stern character, and a more inspired performance in order to succeed and are therefore more meritorious than favourites.  To the viewer, if a favourite wins, it is because of a higher skill level, not because of their focus or tenacity.  Little is considered about the amount of work that the favourite had to put in to become the favourite.  I believe that merit is best described by former NCAA basketball coach John Wooden, who said, “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”  If, given the same opportunities, anyone could accomplish what I did, then there is little merit.  If, however, I exerted extra effort and accomplished what others couldn’t, then I have indeed merited praise.  Canadian rower Jake Wetzel, after finishing second at the 2004 Olympic Games by 0.08 seconds in what was one of the greatest races ever, said, “We went up against legends and we almost did it.”  He knew that his silver medal carried with it a lot of merit.

In my opinion, the true meaning of Upper Canada College’s  motto of “palmam qui merit ferat” (“Let he who merited the palm bear it”) is not the simple IOC mandate of “faster, higher, stronger”.  It is not a results-based, cause-and-effect, cut-off line that states “if you achieve this standard, then you deserve praise”.  To me, the true meaning is much closer to the modernized “may the best man win”.  Assuming “man” to mean “person”, not strictly male, I stress that the qualifying factor is to be “the best man”, which is as much a question of character as it is of performance. This is the “goodness” to which Mr. Caylor referred.  It is a quality that Upper Canada College stresses through its “do good and do well” mentality and is a reminder that we must earn, through our daily actions, the rewards that we receive.

There is a scene at the conclusion of Steve Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan during which many men are killed trying to get a young private (Private Ryan), whose brothers had all been killed in the war, back home to his family.  In the scene, Captain Miller is mortally wounded. As Private Ryan tends to him, the Captain pulls him close and says to him, “Earn this”.  Being born into privilege, as much of us at UCC have been, is not in any way meritorious and does not in itself deserve any praise at all.  That is not to say that we are not meritorious people, but it is to say that we still must merit our rewards.  We do not have to be the best, the smartest, the fastest, or the strongest, but we must use our privileges to add value to society and to those around us.  We must be examples of hard work and positive impact. We must earn what we have been given; we must merit the palm.

 Mark Laidlaw (UCC ’03) spent seven years as a coxswain on the Canadian National Rowing Team from 2005-2011. He currently works as a web publisher for the Ontario Medical Association.

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