In Defense of the Participation Ribbon

The color of the ribbon is somewhat irrelevant to an eight year old. She doesn’t care if it’s regular blue (winner!) or light blue (participator!). It’s not the form of her triumph, it’s the matter - a slightly glossy strip of fabric purchased in bulk and stamped by mothers working in a small brown room that smells of chlorine. It’s okay to always see your name at the bottom of the lists taped to the dark green doors and to be the last one across the pool - as long as there’s that ribbon.

And when everyone lines up to collect from that magical plastic box, everyone is equal - first (blue), second (red), third (white), fourth (yellow), fifth (green), sixth (red), participator (light blue). Until of course the day comes - the Thursday after the first meet of a new age group. Eagerly lined up after fun practice for a strip of fabric. Wait, wait, you’re here! Oh no...there are no participation ribbons for this age group. Light blue had been banished.

The Internet denizens decrying participation awards, I suspect, did not have this experience. I suspect that their summer Thursdays were not filled with watching everyone else get strips of brightly colored fabric. They were not filled with disappointment after disappointment - never making championships, then bumping up to the next time bracket only for the Great and Powerful League to raise the standards, then being included in a championship relay only to show up to practice, swim the long 1000 meter warm up, discover that the relay has been cancelled, and walk home crying in a swimsuit and beach towel.

Just give out the damn participation ribbon.


Hyattsville, Maryland, United States.