I'd rather be a second-class citizen

Suddenly everyone has a problem with people who come second. It has to be gold or nothing.

Suddenly everyone has a problem with people who come second. It has to be gold or nothing.

Suddenly everyone has a problem with people who come second. It has to be gold or nothing. So, what's so bad about coming second? Silver, in my mind, is the new gold.

I'm thinking of packaging my ideas into a motivational speech. ''Aim high-ish,'' I'll tell my corporate clients. ''Try to be pretty much the best person you can be, without busting a boiler.'' And, best of all: ''Sometimes near enough is good enough.''

Think back to your class at school. Where is the kid that came first? Most of the time, he or she went off the rails soon after and is now living in a tin shed just outside Darwin, subsisting on a diet of surgical spirits and baked beans. Occasionally he, or she, accepts care parcels from the kid who came second, who now runs most of south-east Asia for a daring internet start-up.

When dating, we all know to avoid the best-looking person in the room. They are vain creatures who think they're doing you a favour by saying hello. They already have a lover: that person they meet whenever they stare into a mirror. The real trick is to nab the silver medallist: attractive enough, yet with sufficiently weird-shaped ears that they'll need to make an effort.

If only I could come second in most things.

I'd like to be the second-fittest person in any session at the gym, the fittest being a strange man with a baby-oil dependency whose penis fell off last week due to steroid abuse. He spends half his life at the gym and his chest looks like Christina Hendricks's bottom.

I'd like to be the second-best employee in my office the gold medallist being the miserable sap who spoils it for everyone by working too hard and who'll dutifully die from a coronary two days before retirement.

I'd like to be the second-best father in the neighbourhood. The best father, having never been a little tipsy, or crotchety, or tardy in serving his children's every whim, has left them burdened with quite unreasonable expectations of what life has to offer.

I'd like to be the second-best husband in our street, still spotting the attractive, yet age-appropriate, woman strolling past as we walk the dog, yet glancing up so surreptitiously that my partner assumes I'm merely assessing the weather.

I'd like to pay a silver-medallist's level of attention to politics: knowing that it's wrong to be uninterested in the great public debates of our time but also realising that the people who know most about politics are nearly always complete nut-bags who'd make the country unlivable if they ever had their way.

And I'd like to be a silver medallist at healthy and ethical eating, avoiding both the daily serve of Macca's and the gold-medal standard represented by the total bore who fusses and frets about every ingestible thing, making himself the mournful centre of attention at each social occasion as the host rushes around, beset by guilt, realising he's forgotten to order the vegan burgers, the GM-free corn chips and the cider brewed from Amazonian bush fruits collected in sustainable forests by local indigenous tribespeople.

''Try to get to the top of the tree,'' we're told by the motivational cheer squad, but the top of most trees is an uncomfortable and dangerous spot. The branches are thin and spindly and bend from side to side whenever there's a high wind. A few metres down there's a much better position: stable, so you can sit awhile, and with a view that's just as good. It's the silver-medallist's perch and it's always been the best place to survey the world.

The trouble with sport generally, and the Olympics in particular, is the claim that it represents more than entertainment and excitement. Sport is also meant to provide guidance for us all: as you watch you should be inspired to strive for excellence just like Tom, Mitchell and Sally.

''Being the best you can be'' sounds a good idea but it nearly always involves obsession - sacrificing many things for this one thing.

It's not only swimmers. In her book, Stravinsky's Lunch, Drusilla Modjeska paints a sad picture of the composer, his family forced to eat every meal in silence lest they derail the great man's train of thought. Maybe those lunches were worth it for Stravinsky, if not for Mrs Stravinsky.

Obsession may work out for the occasional pole-vaulter or sprinter, scientist or writer. Most of us, though, want more from life: we are more ambitious, not less. We want a pretty good job to be quite fit and healthy to be reasonably good parents and partners to have a fair crack at being a good friend, citizen, neighbour, cook, dancer, gardener, joke-teller.

We want it all. To be creative and allow our children to speak during lunch. Even if it means tiny compromises in just about everything we do.

That's the Olympic slogan for the real world. Quite High. Fairly Fast. Reasonably Strong. Here's wishing you silver in all that you do.

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