View from the Street: Never underestimate the inspirational power of an underdog story

@DavidGaffney78

View from the Street: Never underestimate the inspirational power of an underdog story

A few weeks ago, a bunch of youngsters from Aberdeen drove to London in a minibus and did something quite remarkable.
 
Up against the crème-de-la-crème of English school rowing, two boats from Aberdeen Schools Rowing Association (ASRA) upset the odds by winning their national time trial titles, one of them setting a new record for their age group in doing so.
 
Dispatching opposition from the likes of Eton and St Paul’s colleges along the way, this was a moment to savour for the young rowers, who made up the only Scottish crews competing on the same section of river that Cambridge would triumph on in the Boat Race just a week later.
 
You might imagine they arrived home to a heroes’ welcome, with rapturous acclaim and back slapping aplenty. You’d be wrong. Their achievement caused barely a ripple, even within the Scottish rowing community. It didn’t provoke so much as a tweet from the sport’s administrators, or a paragraph in local newspapers.
 
Maybe that’s a good thing. There’s something to be admired in a great achievement carried out humbly and without fanfare, like footballers in bygone days simply picking the ball up and walking soberly back to the half-way line after scoring a crucial goal. The style of ASRA’s victory speaks volumes about the team and their coaches who, despite their brilliance on the water, clearly have their feet firmly on the ground.
 
It is also a quintessentially Scottish response to success, following in the great tradition of Graeme Obree, Katherine Grainger, Laura Muir, and more recently Marc Austin, each of whom has gone about the business of winning in a decidedly low-key, understated way.
 
I think too of Jasmin Paris, the mountain running phenomenon who has called Scotland her home for nearly 10 years and has been smashing records in the sport for nearly as long. Paris is barely known outside the fell racing scene, which is exactly as she likes it, and yet her feats justify a higher profile than many household names. In a stellar 2016, she set a new record for Ramsay’s Round – a 56-mile circuit of 24 Munros – not only smashing the women’s record, but also knocking 46 minutes off the fastest time recorded by anyone on that route.
 
Would I hold Paris in greater esteem had she taken to social media in the aftermath of any of her incredible record-breaking runs, imploring the world to sit up and take notice of what she had done?
 
Well, no, because her natural modesty only adds to, rather than detracts from, the admiration I have for her. However, a higher profile would unquestionably make Paris and her accomplishments much more likely to appear on the radar of my daughter and her friends as they grow up and look for idols they can aspire to emulate. And there’s the rub: the opportunity cost of all this commendable understatement is that it decreases the prospect of inspiring the next Jasmin Paris or Katherine Grainger.
 
Chris van der Kuyl, the technology entrepreneur, said recently that the success of DMA Design in his hometown of Dundee was a vital spark for his own ambitions in business.
 
“There was this bunch of guys a bit older than me, and it was amazing and inspiring that they were some of the most famous games designers in the world. It was a real motivator. If they could do it, I could do it,” he said.
 
High achievers pave the way for others to follow. That is true in sport, business, and all other walks of life. The key word in that van der Kuyl quote is “famous”. Had DMA’s founders not been renowned and lauded for their achievements, how would anyone come to be inspired by them?
 
The oxygen of publicity helps breathe life into the ambitions of the next generation, whether they pursue excellence in sport, business, politics, medicine, or cheesemaking. Success stories are even more potent and inspirational when an underdog occupies the top of the podium, because that provides underdogs everywhere with a licence to dream.
 
That’s why it frustrates me that news of ASRA’s victories on the Thames last month was not shared widely, infusing more Scottish kids with the belief that they might face up to renowned high-performing opponents and come home victorious.
 
We have a healthy disregard in Scotland for big time Charlies who talk the talk a bit too much and who would do well to pipe down a bit. I don’t think there’s any danger of us over-celebrating our sporting heroes any time soon. 
 
But we never need to look far in sport or business for negative role models. The front and back pages of newspapers are laden with tales of woe, whether it’s Oxfam, Cambridge Analytica, Cricket Australia, or Team Sky.
 
So the more we can counter those sporting and business misdemeanours by heralding stirring victories and remarkable accomplishments, the more positive outcomes we will ultimately inspire and the better we will collectively become for it.