Buck up, elite runners! You are no longer in any danger of being called a loser—in an official capacity, at least.
Track and field meets often have a rule where the runner with the fastest non-automatic qualifying time still advances to the next round of competition. One term for this is repechage, but who knows how to pronounce that. It’s generally called the “fastest loser.”
Yes, these athletes did not win the race, which would make them losers, but the IAAF, track and field’s governing body, is quietly moving away from the term and replacing it with “fastest non-automatic qualifier.” From The Guardian’s Sean Ingle:
Reporters and commentators have been told the phrase “fastest non-automatic qualifiers”, which has already been adopted in some quarters, is more appropriate to describe athletes who do not win a race but make it through to the next round of competition. [...]
The IAAF… insists the move is merely a sign of the times. As a spokesperson for athletics’ governing body put it: “There hasn’t been an official policy to drop the phrase ‘fastest loser’ but the move away from it reflects the evolution of the language. We want to recognise making finals or making it through a heat is a good thing, whatever place an athlete finishes.”
Unlike other terms that can offend, there does not appear to be a constituency ready to fight for continued usage of the “fastest loser.” (I called people losers, and my father, and his father before him, and we’re not going to stop.) But if tennis ever tries to eliminate the term “lucky loser,” then watch out.