There's been quite a bit of negative commentary lately about the giving out of medals for participation. Many of the more righteous folks in the world believe that medals are only the elite; that it's just another example of how we coddle ourselves and try to shield ourselves from the cold truth of the hard world, thereby weakening us in the long run. Often this narrative is couched in for-the-children style rhetoric.
I'm distrustful of all narratives and this is no exception. I have a certain sympathy for it in that I think it is sourced from a desire to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. The world is competitive and likely always will be. No institution, whether for work or play, private or public, will ever be without a hierarchy. This hierarchy may be subtle or gross, explicit or implicit, but there will always be differences in status. Homo sapiens are status seekers and evaluators from deep in our genes and that is not going to change. The only truly status-less organizations are weird hippie communes and they don't last long because that is simply not our nature. So raising your kids or trying to live your life as if you don't have to compete is foolish -- worse, it simply provides greater advantage to those who are prepared and willing to compete.
That said, there's nothing wrong with encouraging participation, we do it in lots of different ways. For an example, take running races of the sort I do many times a year. If you sign up for a race you get a t-shirt. It's yours to keep even if you don't show up. If you finish the race you get a medal -- you can think of this as a participation medal (although technically you could start and not finish and not get the medal). If you are one of the top finishers, either overall or in your age group, you get prizes. I honestly don't see a problem with this. There is still differentiation between the elite and the folks who just made it through. I guarantee you nobody is looking down at their 5K finisher's medal and thinking "Now the Kenyans will fear me!"
Participation is of value. We acknowledge it in many ways. Where I work, you get gifts on your 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, etc., anniversary. Nobody asks about your performance; you may have been just good enough not to get fired, but you stuck around and made your contribution. It counts. Even in sports there are participation rewards. Everybody on the high school football team can wear a letterman jacket, even if you never played a down.
In fact , I would argue -- especially in the case of children -- that rewarding them for participation in something they do not, and likely will not, excel in is a good policy. Despite the fact that I am far from a natural athlete and I will never be anything more than mediocre, I enjoy all these races and fitness challenges I take on. I would have been out a lot of pleasure in my life had I been conditioned to believe there was no point unless I won. And besides, aren't we supposed to be learning that it's OK to fail. There's another thing I wish I had embraced earlier in life -- being unafraid to fail. Doesn't rewarding folks for the attempt encourage them to not fear failure.
So you see, all this medals-should-be-for-winners-only stuff is quite overwrought. Yes, we should acknowledge that victory is the goal and reward excellence, but we do that, so what's the harm in acknowledging participation, also? Look at it this way: if others didn't participate, how would you know you won?