In the men’s 400 meter swimming relay, four of the teams broke the previous world record. Imagine turning in a world record performance and not even winning a medal!
The way of the world is to recognize objective accomplishment. In competition, second place is merely a footnote even if it is blindingly fast, and first place garners all the honors even if it is ploddingly slow.
Nevertheless, competition produces greater achievement. In the same way that records are made to be broken by establishing a reachable mark, evenly matched competitors may spur one another to levels of performance beyond what any one of them could attain individually. The same is true spiritually and morally: communal pressure to adhere to a higher standard compels all of us to conduct ourselves with greater responsibility, while the abandonment of standards legitimizes even the most corrupt kinds of behavior. There is no such thing as a victimless crime.
Ultimately, each of us competes only against himself, and the champion is the one who fulfills his own individual potential by resisting the ceaseless pull of his personal inclination to do evil. G-d doesn’t grade on a curve, nor does He favor those endowed with natural talent.
Who is mighty? asks the mishna. The one who conquers his impulses. Whether or not I’m better than the next guy makes no difference. All that matters is whether I’m the best that I can be.