Is there an idiom for winning a contest because you are the only participant and there is no competitor?

  • Apparently, it depends on which side of the pond you're on (?).
    – Mazura
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 19:37
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    This expression might be useful to you: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed jack is king."
    – Elby Cloud
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 2:47
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/253485/…
    – hb20007
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:16

9 Answers 9


Winner by default. This is a common expression in America for one-on-one sports like wrestling and tennis, especially when part of a larger tournament.

Suzanne won her match by default when the Deerfield High School bus broke down, leaving her opponent miles away from the meet.


This is known as a walkover.

It comes from horse racing where the sole contesting horse had still to walk over the course to win. The following is from Merriam-Webster:

Definition of walkover

1: a one-sided contest : an easy or uncontested victory

2: a horse race with only one starter

The earliest citations in the OED (1928) (there spelled “walk-over”) are of metaphoric use in an article in the ‘Times’ concerning a parliamentary election in 1838 (spelled “walk over”), and one relating to a horserace in 1861 (hyphenated spelling), although it is not entirely clear whether the latter use is literal or metaphoric. A clear example of literal use in relation to horse racing is in the Report of the California State Agricultural Society of 1885:

On Monday, the fifteenth, the track was in the best possible condition when the first race was called, which was the Maturity stake for four-year olds, a dash of three miles. For this William Boots’ colt Padre had a walkover—Lucky B, Gano, and Augusta E paying forfeit.

However race records from the 18th Century include the verbal use, “walked over”, e.g.

Eclipse ch c 1764 (Shakespeare or Marske - Spiletta, by Regulus)…

In 1769 he won a £50 Plate at Epsom…

Walked over for the King’s Plate at the same meeting.…

As regards contemporary use, in addition to horse racing, the term is employed in other sports, including tennis, athletics, and basketball and badminton.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 17:18
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    >A walkover, or W.O. (originally two words: "walk over"), is the awarding of a victory to a contestant because there are no other contestants or the other contestants have been disqualified or have forfeited. The term can apply in sport but also to elections, when it is also referred to as winning "by default" [...] The word originates from horseracing in the United Kingdom, where an entrant in a one-horse race run under Jockey Club rules has at least to "walk over" the course before being awarded victory. –Wiki
    – Mazura
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 19:32
  • @Mazura — Thanks. Have added the 18th Century example from one of the web pages cited in the Wikipedia article. Unfortunately it is not fully referenced. (Nor are most of the assertions in Wikipedia.)
    – David
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:01

I was trying to remember the phrase that I've heard most often (I knew it was "Winner of a... race.") when I saw the comment by Chris Chudziki under David's answer, which filled in the rest of the phrase:

Winner of a one-horse race.

Upon searching for that exact phrase, it seems that it is most often used as part of an insult:

"He couldn't pick the winner of a one-horse race."

But it is used in the manner you described, and I think most native English speakers (at least on the U.S. side of the pond) would recognize the phrase.

  • 12
    +1. I think it's also worth mentioning that "one-horse race" is also used metaphorically to mean an easy win, not just when there is literally only one candidate. (In fact, this might be the more common use? I'm not sure.) Commented May 25, 2017 at 21:42
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    @ChrisChudzicki Quite possibly. I've always assumed (when I've heard the insult) that there was literally only one horse in the race, and there are races where all but one of the horses are scratched from the race, but you may be right. Commented May 25, 2017 at 21:58
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    "One horse race" is almost always used to mean that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, virtually never that there was literally only one runner.
    – Ben
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 8:22
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    I've seen it used literally in a political context—when a candidate (frequently the incumbent) is running uncontested, that's a one horse race. (Horse races seem to be the go-to metaphor for elections in the US.)
    – 1006a
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:24
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    @T.E.D. : I'm disagreeing, suggesting this was a lack of familiarity, but not necessarily because of notable obscurity of the phrase.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 16:28

"Win by default" would sum up winning a competition when there is no opponent.

  • 2
    That answer has already been given.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 14:30
  • 13
    Looks like Kelly H. was before Stu W on this by a few minutes? Regardless, is this even an idiom as requested by Dante?
    – thomj1332
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 14:32
  • @Chenmunka the OP posted the answer three minutes earlier than Stu W. a pity Kelly didn't provide a dictionary link, that would have made a sizeable difference.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 9:25
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    @thomj1332 - Sure its an idiom. The literal meaning is that the opponent(s) defaulted. Using it for a situation where there was never any opponent in the first place is idiomatic.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:40

From the Free Dictionary comes this entry for No Contest:

  1. Lit. [in games] a situation where one team fails to appear for a competition.
    It was declared no contest because the opposing team was stuck in traffic out on the expressway.
  2. Fig. a situation where the winner-to-be of a contest is obvious even before holding the contest.
    It was no contest. The wrestler was so big and strong that no one could have defeated him.

In the specific circumstance that the contest is an election, in Canadian English you could say that the contestant is acclaimed.

From the OED, acclamation:

Canad. (An instance of) election to an assembly by unanimous or overwhelming assent, unopposed

The Canadian parliament notes that

In Canada, a Member is said to be elected or returned by acclamation when no other candidate has come forward at an election and no vote is held.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the google hits for this sense of the term come from Canadian universities' student elections (see the numerous candidates marked "acclaimed" in the University of Waterloo's recent election), since it's relatively rare for actual political positions to go uncontested.

I was surprised no one had posted this, even if it isn't truly generalizable to all contests, because I had no notion that it was exclusively a Canadianism before today; I use the term relatively frequently and am confident that others around me understand it.

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    I didn't realize this was a Canadianism, either. I was going to post but you beat me to it. Thanks. Commented May 29, 2017 at 17:17

In a tournament, if it results specifically from mathematical quirks, like there being an odd number of participants, it may be called a "bye", although I'm uncertain whether that may refer to the victory itself, or just the actual (un-played) game:

the position of a participant in a tournament who advances to the next round without playing

  • No. A bye is for a single round only, where there is at least one more round, which indicates more opponents. The OP is asking about being the only contestant, in which case a bye would not apply.
    – JohnP
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 16:46

Australia has the idiom 'lay-down misere', which comes from gambling: you could lay all your cards down and still win. As a comment mentions, 'pulling a Bradbury', after our gold medal winning speed skater who was the only person to avoid a collision in his Olympic races, is also an idiom, but won't travel.

If neither of these more colourful phrases suit, 'walkover' is a good idiom that will travel, and 'winner by default' isn't exactly idiomatic but describes what's going on clearly.

  • Short track speed skater, to be precise.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 12:09

a one-horse show

This suggests that there was one and only one competitor.

In the case of a one-horse race the common interpretation is that, although there were other competitors, one particular individual was a clear and almost uncontested winner.

  • I think it's supposed to be a one-horse show, not race. I googled your answer and the results suggest that. google.com.ph/…
    – Malky.Kid
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 7:31

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