The agony of victory and the thrill of defeat

When did cycling become the Thunderdome? I suppose given London’s notoriously wet weather some Olympic events that in previous games had been held outdoors were designed to be indoors this time around.

I was watching the women’s omnium finals when Canada’s Tara Whitten narrowly missed winning the bronze medal. The CTV announcer stated as the medals were awarded, “And Canada’s Tara Whitten failed to make the podium.” (Emphasis mine)

Failed? The fourth best woman in a sport I hadn’t heard of until Tuesday was just told by some faceless voice, that she had failed.

Really?

Between the sportscasters casually dropping the “fail” word and the usual collection of armchair coaches and haters on Twitter and Facebook, I was getting annoyed. I even posted on Twitter:

Let’s banish the word #fail when talking about Olympians. They failed to medal? Dude, you failed to get off the sofa.

It’s easy to criticize when you’ll never face the consequences of your words. You won’t do better because you’ll never be on that stage. You’ll never miss the podium because you never played the game.

Reminds me of this diddy by none other than the one true captain:

Paula Finley finished a triathlon injured. She came in last, but she finished. While some cartilage in her hip may have failed, her will, her instinct to finish the race did not. In recent months, I’ve become something of an expert on the subject of tough gingers. Paula, you’re up there with the toughest.

A high school classmate of mine, Jane Thorton (then Rumball), knows this subject far better than I ever will. She was on the women’s eights rowing team in the Beijing Olympics. I kind of boycotted those games because I thought the whole process of awarding those games was ginned by the IOC to pre-determine the outcome. Well, that and I’m a bit of an artifact from a previous generation that sometimes has to be reminded that the Cold War is over and, thankfully, we won (an effect of having spent a disproportionate amount of my adult life on the last enlaves of Marxism in the western world, university campuses).  I followed the rowing events because of Jane. It was the only event where I had a proverbial dog in the hunt. Due to the time zone differences, the events were almost always on while I was at work. Thankfully, my office had a television. I even went so far as to put the rounds and what channel they were on into my Outlook calendar so I wouldn’t miss them.

All my co-workers and pretty much every New Brunswicker working on Parliament Hill crowded into my office to watch Jane go for the gold in the final. When she came up just short of a medal, fourth place, I was pretty sad for her. Having worked so hard for so long, I could only imagine how she felt. She recently posted this article from another Olympian that pretty much summed it up for her.

As that afternoon went on, I thought to myself, “Someone you’ve known since a teenager is on the fourth best rowing team … in the world! Whow. That’s pretty awesome.” I was pretty proud of Jane that day. I still am.

We haven’t crossed paths in forever, so if you read this, Jane, I just wanted to tell you that your success was part of the inspiration I drew on when I decided to change my life last year.  Whenever I felt a case of the quits coming on, usually when the alarm was going off on a dark winter’s morning, I would think of the inievatable early morning rows that you probably did to get Beijing. If you could get to an Olympic final, I could at least my arse to the gym.

One of the armchair experts responding to my tweet mentioned that our athletes are paid to train. True for the ones in high profile sports that can get corporate sponsorships or some money from Own the Podium. Of course, the ones who aren’t so lucky, like discus or any of the events that involve guns, are part-time athletes. We don’t have the glorified  Spartan agoge that China seems to train all its athletes in. We let our athletes seek out the best available trainers. For many of my east coast friends, getting the quality trainers that can get an athlete to the games meant leaving the Atlantic provinces for Montreal, Toronto or even the United States. It’s not just jobs we leave home to find. Since there are so many more events in the summer games than the winter games, the vast majority of our athletes are part-timers. Since we concentrate our funds on the events that have the likeliest chance of medals, if they’re going to be able to train for an event we don’t traditionally do well in, they’re going to need to earn a living.

The pay to train model may in fact be exasperating things. Look back to Paula Findley. As Simon Whitfield pointed out, she was injured for the past year to the point she had not actually competed in the last year. Yet, her previous coaches trained her while injured. He didn’t come out and say it, but the implication is if she took time off to have the injury treated properly, they wouldn’t get paid to train her.

I write this as someone whose pastime is training for races I have no hope in hell of actually winning. I’m not a 110 lbs Kenyan in my early twenties. I’m a 160 lbs Acadian-British-Scottish Canadian in my mid-thirties.  I may have exceeded even my own expectations Ottawa Race Weekend and every other race I ran, but I didn’t win. By the Ricky Bobby-ian logic of the haters, I failed.

Strange, it never felt like failure. It didn’t feel like the silly “participant” ribbon they give out on sports day in elementary school (I always found that rather condescending). It actually felt pretty damn good. Unlike the winners, who I would see being escorted off the track in wheel chairs, I actually get to leave the race grounds under my own power (at least until the adrenaline wears off). I wouldn’t even call the thousands of runners who finished after me failures, either. They crossed the start line and the finished line. In doing so, they did something very few people ever attempt. The failures are the thousands more who could do it, but never try.

Forget winning. I’m failing.

I’ll probably never make the Olympics. I’m the age when Olympians retire. I doubt I’ll ever win a half marathon. That’s not going to keep from either the start line or the finish line. Want to call me a failure? You’ll have to get to that finish line before I do to earn that. Unlike the Olympians who want to save their sponsorships, I’ll tell you what I think about you, too. You may have noticed, I have a gift for words.

Allons-y!

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3 responses

  1. 2 words for you Meb Keflezighi: at 35 he won the NYC marathon, at 37 he won the US trials in January, he finished 4th in the marathon (the other 2 Americans dropped out). He was dropped by Nike because he was injured and “too old” his sponsor is Sketchers… yes, Sketchers…. but he had the last laugh. Maybe you won’t outright win a marathon, but you can win your age category.

    1. Great point. Was going to mention age categories, but didn’t bother because mine – Male mid 30s – is usually one of the more crowded. That written, I’ve never let the fact that I’m not crossing the finish line stop me from running like I want to.

  2. […] of the reasons I find the trolls so nauseating is that I know as bad as the insults the armchair quarterbacks are tossing out, the atheletes are […]

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