The Agony of Defeat
I, like most of us, I think, have been watching the Olympics the last couple of days.
What’s not to like? Gorgeous young people, in top physical shape, coming together to do their physical best. What ISN’T cool about being the fastest man in the world?
Not only BEING it, but having a medal and a record to prove it. And it’s not one of those sort of fake World Series things. I mean, in the Olympics, it really is the world. In the World Series, however, the “World” is the United States and Canada.
While many fine things have been said about the Canadians, I don’t think the term “ethnic” springs to mind when speaking of Canada.
So, this really is the fastest person in the world, on land or water, jumping or running or swimming or paddling or cycling.
And there are all the fabulous stories. I remember years ago, just after the Soviet Union fell into shambles, there was a male skater, a Russian, whose training had been previously paid for, and well, by the government.
He had been reduced to living in some horrible apartment, tiny and possibly unheated, with his mother and grandmother and, in the way those stories often go, his seven siblings and the orphaned cousin who lived with them.
What I do remember clearly about the story was that he had been unable to afford new skates for some ludicrous length of time like two years, and he had been forced to wrap the old skates with tape, again and again.
You read about the stories of hardship, what people give up, what the people around them give up, in order to get them to this point.
Don’t we all have some moments we remember from the Olympics?
I always loved figure skating. Brian Boitano was one of my favorites and his 1988 performance was always a favorite. At one point he did an enormous loop around the rink with his feet absolutely parallel.
I am such a geek that I have even visited the Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs, and I have seen the very costume he wore.
One of my other favorite moments in skating was when Paul Wylie took silver in 1992. If you are not a skating geek, feel free to skip over this, the names won’t mean anything.
Wylie was always one of my favorite skaters, and when he was on, he was a lovely skater to watch, graceful, athletic, a certain almost balletic style, but he always struggled when the pressure was on. He had the potential to do well, but no one really thought he would win a medal at all.
Chris Bowman was his team mate and he was competing against Viktor Petrenko, who won the gold that year, the Canadian team included Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko. It was a tough crowd.
Paul Wylie skated one of those performances they must dream about, both literally and figuratively, where every blade is precisely where it should be, where every muscle and nerve responds just the way you hope for, where no tiny shift in gravity causes your rotation to be a bit off. It was perfect.
Well, not really, because you know how judges are, but what I remember, why I remember this is, he was so thrilled to have done what he did. So often you see athletes standing on the podium, receiving their silver medals, and looking surly or disappointed or shell shocked.
Paul Wylie was thrilled, not focused on what he had lost, but focused on what he had won, and, I suspect, perhaps even more focused on the fact that when it had counted the most, he had done, literally, his very best.
End of figure skating geekdom.
I remember where I was and what I was doing when the US Hockey team defeated the Russians.
I remember watching Nadia Comaneci’s routine, the one that got the first 10 ever.
I remember when Mark Spitz, with his 70’s-porn-moustach, won the gold medals, all seven of them splayed across his chest.
I think the most touching moment for me so far in these Olympics, though it’s still early days, is the interview with Michael Phelps, just after he had lost the 400 meter medley race.
He was shell-shocked. He really didn’t know what to say, and, of course, what everyone really wants is to have a camera stuck in their face when they have just come through one of the most disappointing moments in their entire lives.
It was just touching to see this kid who just kept looking back towards the horizon, as if trying to fathom how it had – or hadn’t – happened.
I wonder if it’s better or worse to lose as a solo athlete or a team athlete.
It would be both better and worse to know that there was no one else to blame it on, that the fault was entirely and completely your own.
On the other hand, how hard it would be to let go of either the guilt or the disappointment when you are part of a team that loses.
If your performance costs all the others on the team a victory, how overwhelming would be the guilt you’re feel, and wouldn’t it be hard for you to really forgive and forget that slip that the other guy made, the one that cost you the victory which you, yourself, had earned?
I suppose it all depends on how high you set your sights. Obviously the majority of athletes who get to the Olympics don’t really expect to win a medal. Most of them know that while they may well be the absolute best swimmer in Sri Lanka, or Costa Rica or Luxembourg, that the best swimmer from the US or Australia is probably going to beat them.
And yet, when you watch all those faces coming in and they’re all happy, all enjoying the experience, all laughing and taking pictures in their country’s uniforms.
Obviously there’s some life lesson there, about enjoying the experience whether we win or lose, about setting our sights on doing well for ourselves and focusing less on where we rank compared to others. There will always be more and lesser than we are, etc.
But it IS the Olympics. I’ve watched the men’s gymnastics team rather fall apart, and now it’s the final of the back stroke. I have to go root for the American, whoever they are because, well, because they’re the American, of course.
And does anyone out there know why the British uniforms had that odd gold lamé lining?