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Why should the best man win?

In 1911 two teams of men raced to be the first humans ever to the South Pole.

The teams were led by Amundsen for Norway, and Scott for Britain.

The main difference between the teams was transport.

The Norwegians chose dog sleds.

They chose dog sleds because they knew the Inuits used them, and the Inuits lived in the Arctic in sub zero temperatures.

So the Norwegians took dog sleds, and expert handlers to drive them.

The British weren’t quite sure what to do.

So they hedged their bets.

They took a few dogs, but no one who was expert in their use.

They took some ponies, but no one who was expert in their use, either.

And three very early motor-driven sleds and, of course, no one who was expert in their use.

Of course, nowadays we all know that the British should have concentrated on dogs.

We think of this as the benefit of hindsight.

But the truth is the knowledge was available at the time.

Scott was advised by Fridtjoff Nansen, the most famous explorer of the day, to take “dog, dogs, and more dogs”.

But he ignored the advice.

And for what would seem to us nowadays as the most illogical of reasons.

Because several of the benefits of dogs over ponies are immediately obvious.

Dogs are lighter than ponies, so they won’t sink into the snow.

Dogs have paws instead of hooves, so they can grip on ice better.

Dogs can lie down and huddle together, so they can survive the cold better.

But the main reason for taking dogs isn’t the most obvious.

The main strength of dogs is that they are carnivores.

The main weakness of horses is that they are herbivores.

And nothing grows in the Antarctic.

So the food for the horses has to be carried as extra supplies.

Whereas dogs can eat penguin meat or seal meat, even blubber.

In short there is food for the dogs, there is no food for horses.

And, if worst comes to worst, weaker dogs can be killed to feed the other dogs.

Horses can’t be killed to feed the other horses.

So all the horses will just die.

Dogs were more practical in every sense, but it didn’t seem that way to Scott.

Scott could accept killing horses and using them for food for his men.

But he couldn’t accept doing the same with dogs.

“One cannot calmly contemplate the murder of animals which possess such intelligence and individuality, which have frequently such endearing qualities, and which very possibly one has learnt to regard as friends and companions.”

So Scott couldn’t bring himself to kill dogs.

Even if his entire team’s lives depended on it.

But the Norwegian team would kill and eat dogs if they had to.

They were professional, even ruthless about achieving their goal.

The priority for the British under Scott was to do the thing in a dignified, civilised manner.

Like true British gentlemen.

So what were the results?

In minus 40-degree weather, Scott’s motor-sleds broke down.

Then all Scott’s ponies died.

Then Scott sent the dogs back so they wouldn’t be killed and eaten.

So Scott’s men had to pull the sleds across the Antarctic themselves.

And unbelievably they actually managed to get to the South Pole.

When they got there, they found the Norwegian flag fluttering.

It had been left five weeks earlier by Amundsen’s party.

So the Norwegians were the first men to reach the South Pole.

And they safely returned to Norway and worldwide acclaim.

But Scott not only failed in his quest, he never returned.

On the way back, Scott and all his men died in minus 40-degree weather, from lack of supplies.

But at least they died nobly and honourably, and became heroes to a generation.

So in their own way they were successful.

Personally, I think the lesson is to work out what your criteria are before you start on something, whatever it is.

Does the end justify the means, like Amundsen?

Or does the means justify the end, like Scott?

If you’re honest about that you won’t be disappointed with the result.

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