August 17, 2008

The Olympics are filled with stories of heartbreak and disappointment. Every day there's another athlete whose dream has been shattered and whose purpose in life has been destroyed. There are spectacular setbacks and phenomenal accounts of underachieving. It's like a global convention for living with defeat.

The good news is if you make it into the Olympics at least you have an exact time and place to pinpoint where it all went downhill.

Everyone focuses on the winners at the Olympics but the majority of the athletes there are losing. There are 10,700 competing for 302 gold medals. Everywhere you look, expectations of triumph vanish in an instant. And yet, while dying on the inside, they manage to talk about the experience being the important thing.

Except Bradley Saunders, the British boxer, who declared that he didn't mind losing because the pressure to win was too much and he was eager to get home.

Who can blame him? But instead of respecting his honesty, there was a photo of him in the papers with the headline 'LOSER'. So not only had he let himself down, but he let the entire country down?

One athlete who lost out to Koreans said, 'I'll meet up with my family and hopefully they'll give me a hug because right now I need one." No news on whether the family came through.

Just once I'd love to hear an Olympian say, "I'll be thrilled if I come in last." What's wrong with that? Why is there such shame in losing?

Last week when the British divers - Tom Daley and Blake Alderidge - messed up, early, clearly it came as a surprise.

Tom, the 14 year old who had received the majority of the attention and was labeled "Britain's Hope For The Future" will go on to dive again and he'll be fine. He's cute, he's got at least three more Olympics in him - including London 2012, and everyone adores him.

His partner Blake is 26. And most likely this is his last chance. Plus, he's had surgery twice for detached retinas. He was almost twice his partner's age and he's worked harder, longer.

After losing the competition he showed signs of being human. Instead of saying they both messed up, he insinuated the majority of the blame was on Tom. Suddenly any sympathy for him evaporated. People thought it was wrong for him to express frustration and criticized him for not displaying the Olympic spirit.

And what's the Olympic spirit? Faking it no matter what? Like hiding the seven-year-old Chinese girl from TV viewers because she isn't pretty enough? That's the spirit.

When is a win really a win anyway? Michael Phelps and the American team won the 400-meter relay by 0.08 seconds. Eight-hundredths of a second. Who knew they could make a stopwatch that precise?

I can't imagine how the losers feel about that relay. After all the years of training, day after day, not eating ice cream or drinking beer or sleeping late - after all that you end up coming in second by 0.08 of a second? How do you not moan about that for the rest of your life?

There are times I've tried to imagine the discipline it would take to train as an Olympic athlete. I can't even think about this for more than two minutes without giving up.

So I think the losers in the Olympics are far more heroic. Because they have to go on without the victory - without the medal - hearing everyone say, "You did your best'.

They have to get up and try not to think about how if only they had pointed their toe a little bit straighter, if only they longer finger nails to touch the wall an eight hundredth of a second faster, if only they hadn't dislocated their elbow or stopped mid-way from a cramp.

I'd much rather lose by a significant margin than almost win. Rather than tell people I didn't win I would tell them I was almost last.

Being a loser didn't hurt John McCain. He was 790th out of 795 in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. I suppose it's how you live with the loss that matters. My father came in 19,000-something in the NYC Marathon. He beat over 8,000 other runners. Was he a winner or a loser?