British Aren’t Happy that Some Gold Medalists May Not Make the Royal Honor Roll

Winning a medal at the Olympics may not be enough to receive an honor from the Queen, and many Brits are not happy about it

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British athlete Jessica Ennis stands on stage with her Olympic gold medal as she arrives for a homecoming party at the Sheffield Town Hall in Sheffield, Aug. 17, 2012.

After winning an Olympic gold medal in your home country, what other honor could even come close? Well, for the top performers of Team Great Britain, perhaps an official honor in recognition of that achievement, handed out personally by Queen Elizabeth herself or another member of the Royal family at Buckingham Palace, with all the requisite pomp and circumstance. And considering that every British gold medalist at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 did indeed get such royal treatment, it’s easy to see why this year’s celebrated winners in London would expect the same thing.

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But they may, as it turns out, be disappointed. This past weekend Jonathan Stephens, a high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, said on BBC Radio 4 that not all British Olympic gold medalists would automatically get an honor. He also said that those selecting individuals for honors would be looking for “sustained effort and contribution.”

The comments elicited a wave of response across the British media; tabloids such as the Daily Star suggested that Prime Minister David Cameron had “snubbed” the “Team GB Heroes, while the broadsheet The Telegraph played up the angle that the Olympians would be “losing out” to senior civil servants in what they deemed a “growing controversy over the quota system.”

Graham Taylor, a former England soccer manager who sits on the committee which decides on sporting honors, told the Telegraph that: “in the past people have been awarded an honor quickly and easily for their achievements and that has now changed and it is not so easy to get that kind of reward.” However London Mayor Boris Johnson is thought to be in favor of it. His spokesman said: “The Mayor believes Britain’s incredible gold medal haul at London 2012 is unquestionably worthy of official recognition.”

Former Olympic athletes who have received honors in the past have also weighed in. Sir Matthew Pinsent, who was made a knight after winning four consecutive Olympic gold medals in rowing, tweeted: “29 2012 OGM’s (olympic gold medals) for indivs who have no previous honour. Simple. MBE for each one. Years of work, perform under pressure and nation says thanks.”

Since the uproar, government officials, including the Prime Minister’s office, have stepped in to do some damage control. That included making clear that new quotas for how many honors should be awarded each year in specific industries (such as sports) would not necessarily be binding. The official line from the cabinet office is that: “Honors are awarded on merit and so naturally there will always be some flexibility. While the report sets out guidelines we don’t operate a rigid quota system.” A spokesman for the Prime Minister has said similar things.

The controversy is far from the first, or most heated, concerning the centuries’ old tradition. There have been cash for honors scandals, where politicians were seen to be exchanging the offer of honors and titles for party funding, and there has long been a question mark over awarding honors to the likes of bankers and rock-stars.

The British honor system is one of the oldest in the world, predating the Medal of Freedom in the U.S. or France’s Legion of Honor by centuries. It was set up in 1348 when Edward III decided to recognize acts of ‘chivalry’ by bestowing upon select individuals the Order of the Garter.

It was not until 1917 that ‘regular’ British folk began to be recognized through George V’s Order of the British Empire, which he introduced as a means to recognize those who served in the First World War.

The honors system has been pumping out these awards twice a year—on the Queen’s official birthday and then in the new year– at a steady rate since then. The vague principles are set out on the Directgov website, explaining each of the various types of honors and awards. They vary from the more exclusive club of Knights or Dames (for “pre-eminent contribution in any field of activity) to the Order of the British Empire, given for distinctions and services at the national level. There is also the CBE, the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which goes to those who have made “a highly distinguished, innovative contribution with a wide impact” and the lesser MBE, Member of the Order of the British Empire, for “outstanding” achievements which stand out “as an example to others.”

Exactly how individuals are chosen continues to be a mystery. Anyone can nominate an individual for an honor, but it is a select group of individuals on sub-committees, managed through the Cabinet Office Honors and Appointments Secretariat, that decide behind closed doors who is worthy and who is not. Not much is offered by way of explanation as to how each individual meets the criteria for a certain honor. Vague rules such as providing “a pre-eminent and sustained contribution” are the only clues offered.

Back in 2004 tentative steps were taken to reform the arcane honors system, and the government set out to publish reports looking into this reform every three years. The latest in the line of these honors reports, which came out at the end of 2011 established the quota system outlining just how many individuals could receive each type of award, divided according to their industry. In sports, the committee is limited to dishing out the following: one Dame/Knight, four CBEs, 20 OBEs and 38 MBEs.

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Given that Team GB won 65 medals, including 29 golds, at the Olympics and is hoping for almost twice that at the Paralympics, quite a few British athletes would be left out of the Queen’s honors list in the New Year if they stick to their quota.

If some or even many British athletes do get snubbed, at least they can take comfort in the knowledge that so many worthy Brits have rejected the call to be honored: Aldous Huxley, David Bowie, Vanessa Redgrave, John Lennon, Alfred Hitchock and Stephen Hawking are among the names to have either at some point cast their nose up at the offer or returned it in protest.