The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of defeat, and Just Showing Up at the Olympics

The official Olympic medals table doesn’t fully capture participation, which is more reflective of the spirit of the Olympic Games.  While it’s natural to celebrate winners, the pathos of losing can be more compelling, and some “losers” who tripped on the way to the podium have exhibited bravery that transcends sports.

The official table is medals won, whether ranked by gold medal count or by total medals.  I’ve seen some interesting variations:  one that adjusts for population; one that tallies points (3 for gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze) then divides by a score on human rights, as compiled by Freedom House; or one that that tallies points but uses GDP as the divisor.  Each method reflects different perspectives of success, but they all place a premium on winning.

Ironically, the Olympic Spirit is imbued with the principle that, “[t]he important thing is not to win, but to take part.”  Let’s respect that uplifting credo, and consider Olympic success through a different prism:  participation.   After all, showing up is half the battle in life, and in the Olympic Games some of the most memorable moments were inspired by “losers” who finished despite seemingly insurmountable odds. 

There’s the Swiss runner Gabriela Andersen who staggered down the home stretch wobbling more than a drunken sailor finally on shore leave.  Gabriela collapsed, but only after crossing the finish line at the end of her miraculous marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.  You probably can’t remember who won that race, but she’ll always be remembered for bravely finishing 37th--and for being the ultimate winner.

Then there’s Derek Redmond, a British 400 meter runner at the Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics.  Redmond seized the lead in his heat, but pulled up with a devastating hamstring injury.  Give up?  Cor blimey, not likely mate!  He bravely limped on, joined by his father who jumped out of the stands onto the track (security wasn’t as secure back then).  They received rapturous approval from the crowd as they hobbled home in tandem.  Again, far more meaningful and memorable than the actual winner…who was that?

Just a few days ago in Rio, an Ethiopian steeplechase runner lost her shoe.  Fumbling to put it back on, she cast it aside rather than let her competitors build a huge lead.   With one foot in shoe and the other bare, she scampered to the finish in decent position, a brave “feat,” given 30 inch-high steeplechase and water obstacles in her the way.

There’s another pair of athletes in Rio whose participation is poignant.   In the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand fell on the track; close behind, Abbey D’Agostino of the United States fell on Niki, who then helped Abbey up.  They ran together until Abbey succumbed to her injury, collapsing again on the track.  No worries, this time Hamlin helped D’Agostino up.  They spurred each other on, eventually finishing the race despite Abbey sustaining a torn right ACL and a meniscus tear.

Nikki has been granted an exemption to run in the final, but even if their endeavors aren’t reflected in the medals table, their contributions to the lore of Olympic legend will be everlasting.  Refusing to be victims of circumstance, they embraced the emotive power of losing, channeling indefatigable determination to repel the capricious hands of sporting fate.  Already, they are garnering more admiration than if they had won.

By comparison, the joy of victory simply does not match, emotionally, the despondency of defeat.  Several studies in loss aversion indicate that losing generates far more pain than an equivalent gain, and what can make losing particularly potent is the gulf between results and expectations.   Consider the Dutch 200-meter sprinter Dafne Schippers.  After winning a thrilling silver medal at Rio, she acted rather stroppy, throwing her towel and shoes around because the silver was not good enough for her.  Despite producing a season’s best time, she was simply outclassed by the gold medalist Elaine Thompson of Jamaica.  Then Schippers classless night continued after the race when she said, “This is terrible, I really can’t enjoy it.”

Sports, and exercise in general, facilitate Dopamine production.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which controls the brain’s pleasure stimuli, and the amount released is directly proportional to how much we expect a result to occur.   Nevertheless, as suggested by Schippers’ reaction, dopamine’s affects can be ephemeral, and the happiness it produces can be hollow compared to the meaning that comes from helping others.  Indeed, many psychologists say that a purposeful life may be more important than happiness.  A corollary might be that participation is ultimately more important than winning since only one can achieve the latter, often by stepping on others’ toes.

Studies suggest that happy people tend to be takers, whereas people exhibiting traits of a meaningful life can be characterized as “givers.”  Givers like Gabriela, Derek, Nikki and Abbey, none of whom took any immediate, tangible reward. These brave athletes’ losses were transient, but their bravery is transcendent.   Despite years of dedication and sacrifice in their sport, they proved there’s more to getting a medal, and absolutely shredded the unsporting notion that “[w]inning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  They didn’t childishly chuck stuff around in a tantrum when faced with disappointment, but bravely chose to embrace the Olympic spirit as much as anyone in the medals table.

As the Special Olympics Athlete Oath says, “Let me win.  But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

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