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Bob: You want to do something for Dash? Then let him actually compete. Let him go out for sports!
Helen: I will not be made the enemy here! You know why we can't do that.
Bob: BECAUSE HE'D BE GREAT!

Everyone loves an underdog story. It's why Underdogs Never Lose is such a common trope. It's natural that we cheer for the one we don't expect to win. No one wants to watch David vs. Goliath where Goliath wins, but when this leaks out of narrative contexts, or into unrelated narratives, you often get this rather bizarre mutation: the person who won is seen as unethical or even evil because they won — or just because they entered with the knowledge that they'd have an advantage, which sounds like cheating to some people. Said advantage may be a result of Training from Hell or being the Privileged Rival. There is also an element of Comes Great Responsibility: people with an obvious advantage in a contest should be responsible enough to know they shouldn't enter it and ruin everyone else's fun. Or at least that's what the condemners think.

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In real life, the most common case arises when a given opportunity is "opened" to everyone, yet the winner is someone who would arguably not have needed that opportunity to prove they're good at what they do, such as a professional athlete or artist. Despite what Hollywood might tell you, a talented amateur is unlikely to be better than someone with a decade or more of experience under their belt, and the professional likely doesn't need to enter an amateur contest to prove their skill, making it easy to see them as a Jerkass doing it just to deny others their recognition. A common avoidance is an evil character who could win by playing fair instead deciding to cheat, and losing as a result. Other times, it can be unintentionally introduced or openly announced.

On the other side of the coin, this is a common problem for the precocious amateur or semiprofessional, who can find themselves excluded from opportunities for between being a Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond by well-intentioned rulemakers Moving the Goalposts. These stories often come across as a Family-Unfriendly Aesop that the talented should aim to Do Well, but Not Perfect rather than striving to further improve.

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This trope is one of The Perils of Being the Best. Compare Tall Poppy Syndrome, where the skilled person is brought down by active sabotage, instead of just moral condemnation. The Resenter will often be the first person to consider someone else overqualified.

For when a specific tactic or playable character in a game is hated for being too powerful to be fair, see Tier-Induced Scrappy.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z: After the Cell saga, the main characters try to pass for normal. When they enter the latest worldwide fighting tournament, they all give a light tap to the punch machine. Then Vegeta, being Vegeta, comes along and obliterates it.
  • In Outlaw Star, Aisha Clan Clan wants to enter the "Strongest Woman in the Universe" contest only to discover that her species, the Ctarl-Ctarl, are banned because they can transform, becoming superstrong and unstoppable, which a previous contestant used to disastrous effect. Aisha joins anyway by kidnapping a costumed competitor and assuming her identity, which turns into another disaster in the finals when her opponent turns out to be another kind of Ctarl-Ctarl (or a different alien with similar transformative powers). They wreck the entire place with their struggle, essentially proving the judges right.
  • It's mentioned in ViVid Strike! that Nove's body makes it illegal for her to compete in martial arts tournaments. While the meaning behind this isn't addressed in the season itself, anyone with knowledge of the rest of the Lyrical Nanoha franchise would know that it's referring to her being a combat cyborg.

    Comic Books 
  • Alpha Flight member Northstar was once an Olympic skiier. His medals were taken and he was banned from the sport when it was discovered he is a mutant speedster.
  • One non-canon story in Archie Comics has Archie suffer a horrific accident that requires reconstructive surgery resulting in Archie becoming a cyborg, roughly parallel to The Six Million Dollar Man. Archie joins the Riverdale football team, and becomes an unstoppable juggernaut, until an official cites a rule that forbids fielding any "animal, monster, alien or cyborg." Though banned from football itself, there's no such rule about the cheerleading squad. Archie can lift the entire squad overhead by himself.
  • Asterix shows it in two steps in the Olympic Games story:
    • The Gauls tell the Romans that they have every intention of entering the Olympic Games (as Gallo-Romans) and win with their magic potion. Because of this the Romans completley give up on training (which spreads to the other athletes) until they learn such substances are banned, which gets them back into training while the Gauls decide Asterix will only participate in the footrace.
    • Even back in the game, the Romans don't win a single medal, which leads the Greeks to realize this will hurt their tourist industry, so they create a Roman-only footrace event.
  • In the The Unbelievable Gwenpool holiday special, a Deadpool imitation contest is done for charity. Deadpool enters, but Squirrel Girl says he can't win, as he is Deadpool. At least she awards him with the Minimum Effort ribbon.
  • One Superman story has Superman play basketball against against a bunch of Muggles. After promising not to use "flyin' or anything like that" because they consider that "just weak", he uses Super Speed to win in a rare Smug Super moment.
  • The children's humour strip The Winners, featuring a Born Lucky family and printed in several anthology comics, often had them outright banned from multiple contests to make it fair. One Letters to the Editor response in Buster also said that they voluntarily avoid playing the lottery to "give everyone else a chance".
  • Cyborg of the Teen Titans is explicitly introduced as a former athlete who can no longer compete because of his cybernetics.
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     Film 
  • In Sweet and Lowdown, professional guitar player Emmet enters a small-town talent contest while driving cross country. He effortlessly wins, being lauded as the second best guitarist after Django Reinhardt, and is run out of town when his identity is revealed.

     Film — Animation 

    Light Novels 
  • Sword Art Online:
    • Early in the Aincrad arc, beta testers like Kirito are seen as untrustworthy due to their higher stats and knowledge of the game world giving them a better chance of survival.
    • The Fairy Dance arc has similar angst with Kirito entering another VR-MMORPG in order to find his missing girlfriend... and it turns out that enough of its code was stolen from Sword Art Online that some of his previous avatar data is ported over like a type of Old Save Bonus. The problem is that as an SAO survivor he's been connected to the same kind of neural interface 24/7 for the last two years; as a result, his brain has adapted to it, letting him control his avatar with greater speed and fluidity than any normal player. Thus he angsts about how he'll probably be banned on sight from any kind of gameplay because he's pretty much the definition of "overpowered", and how this will be bad for his chances of finding out where Asuna is.

    Literature 
  • Witches in Discworld tend to be subjected to this trope:
    • In the short story "The Sea and Little Fishes", the Living Legend Granny Weatherwax enters and wins every annual contest of witchcraft. When a middle-rate busybody accuses her of being unfair, Granny's friend Nanny Ogg muses that people who expect witches to play nice have a thoroughly inadequate understanding of what it means to be a witch.
      Letice: Don't you think it's unfair to other people that you win every year?
      Granny: No. I'm better'n them.
    • Defied by Tiffany Aching, who doesn't participate in the annual cheese-making contests: even though she makes them like anyone else, people would assume that as a witch, she used magic to make them better.
  • Encyclopedia Brown once had a case where a man who appears to be in the Navy enters an amateur painting contest. However, he gets numerous sailing terms wrong, calling into question his true identity. He turns out to be a professional painter and is disqualified.
  • In the Star Trek Expanded Universe novel The Great Starship Race, the U.S.S. Enterprise participates in the title race. Because it's much faster than any of the other ships, it would automatically win the race. Instead of simply ordering the Enterprise to keep below some arbitrary speed limit (and check the log tapes to verify it if there's a dispute), the race's organizers require that the Enterprise's engines have restrictors put on them to physically prevent it from going above a certain speed, even in the event of an emergency. Naturally this causes problems later in the story.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Non-competition example: the Community episode "Beginner Pottery" has Jeff become jealous of a classmate in the titular class (Rich) who displays skill beyond that of an amateur. There's no competition, but Jeff still believes Rich took the class to impress the others. It's implied Jeff is right.
  • In an episode of Married... with Children in which Al gets ID that labels him 65, he enters the local Senior Olympics. His only real competition is a man who wants to win so badly he once considered lying about his age. Al ends up winning and the narration notes that if you expected Al to let the old guy win, then you haven't been paying attention to the show the last several years.
  • Andrew from My Secret Identity once tried out for the school's track team despite his superpowers giving him an unfair advantage. He has a discussion with Dr. Jeffcoate who asks if he's the one winning the races or his alter ego. This causes Andrew to intentionally lose his next race.
  • The Facts of Life had an episode where Andy organizes the girls into a singing group for a contest to sing backup for El Debarge. They are one of the three finalists and then one of the two when one of their competitors breaks up acrimoniously. The other finalist has a member who knows El Debarge personally and turns out to be a professional. Andy cites this as reason to get them disqualified since the contest is open for amateurs only.
  • In Waiting for God, this is used as a punchline for a joke: the context is that Diana has gotten Harvey put in the funny-farm, which leaves a kind of a vacuum. Tom tells Diana that we all need a bastard in our lives. Diana asks why she can't fill that role, to which Tom replies "Overqualified."

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Discussed in Doonesbury during the arc where Zonker Harris goes into training for the Gerald Ford Biathlon: golf and tanning. Zonker hired Bernie as his personal coach, during which Bernie asked why a black man wouldn't outright clinch a tanning competition. Zonker points out that it's a matter of gradient: melanin levels at the outset versus at the conclusion. Bernie starts grousing that it's another form of institutionalized racism, to which Zonker replies, "Man, don't spoil it for the rest of us."

    Programming 
  • Eurisko, an early computer program, won the RPG Traveller's space combat tournament twice in a row in the 1970s by exploiting loopholes in the rules to build unconventional but absurdly overpowered fleets of ships. This caused the organisers to threaten that if Eurisko won a third time, they'd abolish the tournament, leading the programmer to voluntarily withdraw it from all future competitions.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons encodes this in the mechanics for awarding Experience Points: defeating a challenge far below a character's level grants no XP, on the grounds that the conflict was too unfairly lopsided for the winner to learn anything from it.
  • In Shadowrun's supplement Shadowbeat, all of the major sports allow cyberware to some extent, but they also absolutely forbid any use of magic (spells, aid from spirits, etc.) to enhance performance. The only exception is if the player is a physical adept, whose natural abilities are enhanced by innate magical ability. As a balancing factor, physical adepts are forbidden to have cyberware.

    Video Games 
  • Golden Sun: The Lost Age: If you use an Old Save Bonus where Isaac won Colosso in the first game, then there's an optional sub event where several of the other competitors track him down and accuse him of cheating by using his Psynergy, an advantage the other combatants didn't have. Isaac defends his actions by claiming there Ain't No Rule against using Psynergy (in fact, the tournament's sponsor deliberately slipped Isaac in to test his power) and that, as an innate ability, it fit with the Tournament's theme of relying on your own power rather than tools like weapons or armor.
  • Simon the Sorcerer 3D features a carnival run by demons, who will not allow a dwarf to play the 'Test-your-strength' game... because he's a dwarf, and is naturally stronger than a human.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: A flashback in "The Storm" shows that after Aang was publicly revealed to be the Avatar the other airbender kids stopped playing competitive games with him because they felt he'd have an unfair advantage, even though his actual level of ability hadn't changed.
  • The Legend of Korra:
    • The Fire Ferrets unknowingly recruit the Avatar for their probending team. Subverted because Korra is not very good against trained opponents even with her Avatar powers, and outs herself by panicking and bending someone else's elements. Despite this, she's allowed to stay on if she sticks to waterbending.
    • When practicing her airbending against Tenzin's children, she briefly goes into the Avatar state to give herself a boost. When the kids complain, she just blows a raspberry at them. Nicely parodied here.
      Tenzin: Days, Korra. Days of pounding an appreciation for introspection, patience, and a reverence of spirituality into your head. And this is what it's amounted to. Using messiah steroids to beat my grade-school children in an air scooter race.
  • The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius: In the episode "The Science Fair Affair", Principal Willoughby agrees to Cindy's decision to ban Jimmy Neutron from the school science fair, since he won the last three in a row, and all his scientific knowledge gives him an unfair advantage over the other students.
  • In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, this trope was used as part of a Your Mom joke. It went something like "Your momma tried to enter an ugly contest, but she was turned away. They said 'No professionals!'"
  • Hercules: During an athletic competition between Athens and Sparta, Hercules's Super Strength lets him win the first twenty events for Athens with absurd ease. Frustrated, Ares realizes the games are supposed to be about mortal competition, and so points out Hercules is a demigod (which is tested as an athlete would be tested for doping). Hercules is thus prohibited from future events, and his team loses half the points he won.
  • South Park's episode "Stanley's Cup" is an infamous deconstruction of Underdogs Never Lose, ending with Stanley's pee wee hockey team playing the Detroit Red Wings and, of course, losing horribly. However, the Red Wings take it much further than just trying to win, as they repeatedly injure the children, sometimes seriously, even though they could clearly win without doing so. And to rub salt in the wound, after they smash them all flat and they are being carried off by medics the scene continues to follow the Red Wings as they have a standard-issue sports-movie winning montage.
  • X-Men: Evolution:
    • In one episode, Spyke enters a skateboarding contest and performs well, but is pressured by the other contestants into forfeiting because of his mutant genes. Spyke insists his mutation doesn't affect his ability to skateboard, but leaves the contest anyway, feeling that when the judges find out he's a mutant, he's not going to stand a chance of winning anyway.
    • A later episode has Principal Kelly taking away all of the academic and sports achievements of the mutant students of Bayville High, starting with Jean Grey's soccer trophies, because he says that said powers were used for cheating (although there is absolutely no evidence saying otherwise and in Jean's case, from what we see of her telepathy, it actually could even be considered a handicap when playing against a big group of people). Then again, Kelly is as hard-core with his Fantastic Racism as it gets, even allowing anti-mutant bullying... or worse.

    Real Life 
  • The concept of tier lists and league divisions is meant to prevent this by organizing participants into categories where they are expected to be about the same with everyone else. The distinction can be as simple as Varsity and Junior Varsity in highschool. This prevents the Purposely Overpowered and Game Breakers from ruining the inherent competitive value system of sports and games.
  • In Britain's Got Talent, 12-year-old musical singer Beau Dermott was accused of "cheating" in newspapers when it was revealed that she had been professionally coached in singing and won multiple Talent Shows before. BGT has no rules banning either of these.
  • The Great British Bake Off is supposed to be for amateur bakers. In Series 6, there were complaints about one contestant being a semiprofessional baker who had trained in patisserie in Paris. The BBC countered by saying the contestant in question had completed a one-week course in Paris over 10 years before entering the show, and had never worked professionally as a baker or chef.
  • When Wizards of the Coast ran an open submission contest for their new world for Dungeons & Dragons, the winner was Keith Baker's Eberron setting. This attracted accusations of the content being rigged because Baker was a previously published professional author and had worked previously with one of the co-authors of the line. (All entries were anonymous to avoid preferential treatment, and WOTC had said at the outset that amateurs and professionals alike were permitted to compete.)
  • Until a rule change in 1986, the Olympic Games were reserved for amateur athletes, and professionals were barred from entry.
  • The Pony Club is banned from participating in (admittedly low-key) local riding shows and gymkhanas in the UK, as their level tends to be much higher than the average entrant. Unfortunately, since there's no way of proving one isn't a member, there have been cases where one or two have managed to sneak in anyway.
  • Gifted students often run into well-intentioned teachers, consciously or subconsciously, doing this. Things like "Does anyone besides X know?" during a show of hands or holding their work to different standards when deciding what is praiseworthy are common examples.

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