The human competitive instinct is often the driving force for success, and for many the achievement of awards and accolades affirms ultimate accomplishment within their field. For actors it is the Oscar, for musicians the Grammy, whilst in academia and politics there can be no greater honour than a Nobel Prize.
So what drives the few who, in fact, refuse these awards? For some a shock headline, or a controversial and rebellious reputation, may represent a prize more valuable than any award. For others, perhaps, it's integrity - even modesty - which motivates them to forego the ultimate accolade, believing they are simply unworthy of the honour. In other cases the award itself represents a system or institution with which some would rather not be associated.
Perhaps in modern society, where the buzzword of the moment is individualism, the desire to be different and stand out from the crowd surpasses the aspiration toward success. Instead of aiming to attain integrity and respect within their field many actors and musicians instead seek to be talked about and make headlines. The era of the celebrity is upon us and instead of achieving fame through accomplishment, it can easily be bought by shocking the public through surprising or controversial decisions.
However the question remains; what is the effect on the reputation of the award if it's refused? Can one individual’s decision to reject what's generally accepted as a great honour ever truly reverse a history of prestige? On the other hand, does someone’s assertion that they are unworthy further strengthen the status of an esteemed accolade or cheapen it by associating it with controversy? To go some way to answering these questions, we've presented you with ten high-profile examples of individuals who unexpectedly refused awards…
10 Grigori Perelman, Millennium Prize
The ‘Millennium Prize Problems’ are seven mathematical problems stated by the Clay Mathematics institute in 2000 which each hold a $1 million price-tag for their solution. Grigori Perelman was the first to offer a proof to one of the problems and was officially awarded the Millennium Prize, as well as the Fields Medal. However, Perelman refused both awards and the associated prize money - to the surprise of many - as he believed that the prize was unfair. This was a bold and financially costly move by the reclusive Russian genius. He claimed that his contribution to the proof was no greater than that of Columbia University mathematician Richard Hamilton and has been quoted as asserting "I'm not interested in money or fame; I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo."
9 Axl Rose, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
You may find Guns N’ Roses in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, however the band’s iconic front-man did not attend the induction ceremony as he was on bad terms with his former band-mates. Although Rose was honoured publically for being inducted when he was presented the West Valley City’s ‘Key to the City’, in his open letter explaining his non-attendance he stated that the Hall of Fame induction "doesn't appear to be somewhere I'm actually wanted or respected."
8 Al Levie, Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award
Back in 2012 Al Levie, a high school social studies teacher in Wisconsin, caused a stir as he refused the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. humanitarian award due to that fact that it was to be given by Republican Paul Ryan. In a statement after the event Levie explained that he believed: “Paul Ryan had no business at a Martin Luther King event, it's totally hypocritical. On the one hand he votes to slash health care, while on the other hand, King dedicated his life and he died for it, for people to have adequate healthcare, to have adequate jobs." The protest was met with mixed reactions from the crowd but Levie’s statement was a powerful display of his stance toward republican policies.
7 Sinead O'Connor, Grammy
Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O'Connor has always courted controversy, recently writing an open letter to Miley Cyrus on the exploitative nature of the music industry. However in 1991 she did what no one had before when she refused to accept her Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance, having boycotted the ceremony. O’Connor claimed she was against the commercialism of the Grammies; however, as with many of her controversies, some have argued it was simply a publicity stunt to gain notoriety.
6 Justice JS Verma’s family, Padma Bhushan Award
Justice JS Verma was instrumental in shaping stronger anti-rape laws in India so it was only appropriate that he be awarded one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Bhushan award, following his death. His family declined the award on his behalf due to the embarrassing oversight that they never received any official communication, learning instead of the honour second-hand through media reports. In her letter of refusal his widow wrote "We do not want to accept what we know Justice Verma himself would not have accepted. He will remain satisfied with being remembered as one of India's most pre-eminent jurists...The greatest honour to him remains how he is held in the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen, as a true friend not just to women or the youth, but to those most in need of one."
5 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize for Literature
Proving that not all refusals are a reflection on the validity of the award, Jean-Paul Sartre refused Nobel Prize for Literature due to that fact that he did not want to be turned into an institution. Sartre stated that he always refused official honours for this reason, although he did accept that to be offered such a high award was a great honour. He believed that by receiving the award from such a ‘prominent Western cultural institution’ he would be taking a side in the West Vs. East cultural struggle.
4 John Cleese, Knighthood (twice!)
After turning down a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1996 it is surprising that he had the opportunity to once again refuse a knighthood in 1999 when he was offered a life peerage. However, Cleese is not alone in rejecting the UK honours system. Controversial poet Benjamin Zephaniah announced in 2010 when he refused his OBE (Order of the British Empire) "I get angry when I hear the word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."
3 Lê Đức Thọ, Nobel Peace Prize
Lê Đức Thọ made the brave decision of refusing a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accord in 1973. He reasoned that he could not accept given that the goal of the negotiations was to establish peace in Vietnam and this had not yet been successfully achieved. His letter to the Nobel Prize Committee displayed a deep respect for the institution and clarified that once ‘the arms are silenced and a real peace is established in South Vietnam, I will be able to consider accepting this prize’
2 Marlon Brando, Academy Award
Marlon Brando is one of only three people who have refused their academy awards (alongside Dudley Nichols and George C. Scott) and he is perhaps the most infamous of the three. In 1972 he was nominated for and won the best actor award for his role in The Godfather; however instead of attending and accepting the award he sent ‘Littlefeather’ to explain his decision to refuse it due to Hollywood’s discriminatory portrayal of Native Americans. Sacheen Littlefeather, who delivered the scathing speech on Brando’s behalf, was later discovered to be an American Indian born Marie Louise Cruise.
1 The USA basketball team, Olympic Silver Medals
To this day the USA has refused to accept its 1972 Olympic basketball silver medals. It was the first time that the USA hadn't won the gold medal since the sport had been introduced to the Olympics in 1936 and the players proved to be sore losers. The team’s refusal has been viewed by many as an embarrassing show of bad sportsmanship and USA Basketball has periodically contacted the team members to offer the opportunity to change their stance and accept the medals. The International Olympics Committee has insisted on a unanimous team vote but thus far this has not happened. Cuba’s bronze that year was the only Olympic medal they have won in the sport, and it was graciously accepted - perhaps that fact might offer the team a little much needed perspective.