In praise of coming last

In true European fashion, Living room philosophy will be taking a break in August and will be back in September. As a fitting tribute to the last post, on the last day of July, I thought I would write about the joys of coming last.

Coming last has never really had a good reputation. If someone comes last in a competition or is ranked bottom of a league table, it usually means that they are not very good at what they came last in. If someone comes last to a party or an event, it tends to signify that this person is inept at time-keeping or not very considerate of the host’s feelings.  Thus, criticism usually follows coming last. One recent example is the publication of how much coming last had cost Ireland at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Would cost have been such an issue had Ireland won?

Coming last is not always all bad though. A couple of years ago, my fellow interns and I competed in the intern five-aside football tournament. We were a predominantly female team in a predominantly male tournament. Most of us had never really played much football before (or any at all) and we had no clue about training. We decided to enter however, to have fun as well as it being a good occasion to bond.

Our first match was a disaster: we lost by a colossal amount (without scoring a goal) and we were considered a bit of a laughing stock. Not only were some boys laughing at us because we were generally rubbish; they were also laughing at us because we were (mostly) women playing football: proving gender stereotypes.

The humiliation of our first match was a turning point for us: we could either quit or continue humiliating ourselves. The team was close to splitting into warring factions but after a heated team-talk, we chose the latter, and we decided to at least try to train. From then on, we trained twice weekly and we got better.

Alas, we finished last place by a very long shot. Regardless of how badly we were beaten, or what names we were called, we always showed up to our matches and played with professionalism. Our effort and commitment were honoured as the recipients of the “Fair Play” award, and we became minor celebrities. We didn’t win games but we won hearts.

In the 2000 summer Olympics, Eric “the Eel” Moussambani enraptured 17,000 supporters and the world by coming last: he won his 100m freestyle swim-heat but his time of 1 minute 52.72 seconds is the slowest time ever recorded in Olympic history. He defied criticism and taunts to embody the spirit of the Games. On coming last, he said, “Many people thought that I would not be able to finish the race. I would have been ashamed had I not been able to finish the race. I would not have been able to live with myself.”

Coming last can mean many things: heroic failure; personal and financial cost; or simply that our talents lie elsewhere. But on the bright side, by coming last, we can at least say that we did our best, and we contributed to the betterment of the human race. To me, coming last means one more thing: that today we’ve reached the end, and tomorrow we start again.

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