Why We Need To Learn To Lose Like A Winner
By Paul ConnollyAugust 2, 2012
Executing a spectacularly shallow dive, Australian fans have proven to be a most unsporting public this Olympics. Claiming the winners' podium in advance of the starting-block clouds our view of the games and punishes our athletes.
On Monday and Tuesday mornings of this week, thousands of Australians woke to an alarm, swung our legs out of bed and shuffled blearily but expectantly to our televisions.
It was cold beyond the doona, but it helped that we were getting up hours earlier than usual for gold-medal bankers. Convinced by the spin and hype in the Australian media — whose reporting generally covers athletes from other countries as the mere narrative arc for our heroes in green and gold — many of us already had these winners' medals hanging around our national neck, anticipating how they would catch the sun and send shards of brilliant light shooting into the eyes of our envious rivals.
Like the Poms. Right, John Coates?
But something went wrong.
On Monday, the Australian men's 4 x 100m relay team finished fourth behind the powerful French in their final, and were made to regret their nickname, The Weapons of Mass Destruction, in world-record time.
The following morning, another Australian gold-medal favourite, Emily Seebohm, was beaten to gold by American Missy Franklin in the 100m backstroke, the silver lining of her silver medal not immediately apparent.
How could this be, we asked? This isn't the way these stories are supposed to end.
Whether philosophical, disappointed, upset, frustrated, or even angry, we finished our cereal, drained our tea and got on with our days.
Evidently, many of us, at some point during the day, found the time and motivation to broadcast our feelings on Twitter, Facebook and in the comments sections of news stories.
Despite the near stupor of relay lead swimmer James Magnussen and the tear-soaked face of Seebohm viewed by all in the microphone-in-the-face moments after their respective races — reactions many of us took them to task for — one might have assumed, given the subsequent outpourings, that the defeats were harder on us, the Australian public, than on the athletes in question.
The tone of a significant proportion of public feeling was demonstrated in comments which included words such as: "Over-hyped prima donnas", "Chokers", and, ironically, "Entitled brats". This in response to news articles which ran under headlines like "Misfiring missile leads weapons of mass deflation" (The Punch) and "Silver Seebohm beaten by nerves" (the Brisbane Times).
In this world of social media, it seems anyone can be a shock jock. There was barely any need then for radio broadcaster Alan Jones to reportedly suggest Australia's fourth in the 4 x 100m was this nation's greatest defeat since Gallipoli.
But really, once they'd got their gripes into a public forum, debriefed with colleagues around the office urn and a jar of no-name biscuits that only get eaten because there's nothing better about, I suspect that even the most vituperative of the commentators had almost certainly moved on. You know, when the media provokes an emotional response many of us are simply happy to oblige, whether we're truly perturbed or not. It's called trolling.
I hope we don't always fall for it.
"Don't panic!" Channel Nine breakfast TV advised us on Wednesday morning after its report that the ninth-ranked Australian men's basketball team had gone down to Spain, the second-best national team on the planet.
We can only hope that, "Um, okay," was the national response.
Of course Australia isn't the only nation caught up in the cycle of build 'em up and cut 'em down. The British, for one, are masters of the art. "From Brad to worse" screamed The Daily Star Sunday when cycling's road-race gold-medal 'shoe-in', Mark Cavendish from the lionised Team GB, failed to figure in the race for medals on the opening day of competition. The response from many of the British public was equally disparaging. After all, they'd been robbed of a certain gold.
Days later, in fact, when British gold-medal shots Tom Daley and Pete Waterfield finished out of the medals in the 10m synchronised diving event, one Twitter commentator went so far as to say that Daley had let down his deceased father (that 17-year-old was later arrested and issued with a harassment notice).
But the Brits, like us, will no doubt move on, forgetting the details of what has already transpired. After all, there's always the next, new, engaging event just around the corner.
But what of the athletes in question? The ones who have carried our hopes and expectations on their shoulders? The ones who have faced the criticism and abuse of many for "failing" to bring home gold? The ones most of us had barely heard of just a few weeks ago, but who have been training for four years, often longer, for an event that takes just a few minutes, and an opportunity they may never have again? Well, their families, friends and teammates will rally around them, but only they can process the pain, the questions, the resentment and the self-doubt. Only they can summon the mental strength to give it another go, or reframe their efforts outside the narrative others have created on their behalf.
Seebohm's tears at missing out on a gold medal were not manufactured, unlike the public commentary afterwards. The 20-year-old — who sobbed that she felt she had let her parents down — had set herself a monumental goal, knowing, unlike us, the capabilities of her rivals and the difficulty of the task ahead of her. She'd put her body and soul into contesting this race, sacrificed so much, and come agonisingly close to winning.
She was entitled to her tears. We have to hope that in time she truly feels that her silver medal is a wonderful achievement.
I wonder if it crossed Magnussen's and Seebohm's minds in the wake of their finals that it would have been better to 'lose' in a different way? Would it have been better to not be talked up as a gold-medal cert, not to be handed the virtual assurance of winning, but then to come second or third or even fourth? Take Australian Christian Sprenger who was crying with joy after achieving an unexpected silver-medal place in the 100m breaststroke final, or Bronte Barratt who couldn't contain her delight after finishing third in the 200m freestyle, saying it was "a dream come true".
These medals were portrayed as victories of a sort, with no sense of media and public disappointment taking the shine off them.
There are some 10,500 athletes competing at the London Olympic Games. There are 302 gold-medal events. This means that in two weeks' time, the vast majority of these competitors will return to their sovereign soil, their families and friends, their homes, their pets, their jobs, their studies, their undone laundry, their unpaid bills, and their unknown futures, without gold medals hanging around their necks.
Whether that makes them all losers depends on the narratives we, and they, choose to follow.