Thursday, August 2, 2012

What about the losers?

Hamadou IssakaI think the nagging doubt started while watching Hamadou Issaka.

Olympic athletes are the best in their sport, dedicated, hardworking talented people who have given years of their lives over the ceaseless pursuit of winning.  Hamadou Issaka was different.  A Nigerien rower who took up the sport  months ago, he finished a very slow, distant last.

It’s easy to  say that “Issaka the Otter” was unprepared, but he got me thinking about the dozens of athletes in every event who also finish out of the money (literally, in the case of US athletes).   Winners achieve fame and fortune (media roles, endorsement contracts, brand royalties).  But, as Salon notes, "the winners always beat someone someone who doesn’t meet or exceed expectations — and that is the story of most Olympians”.

Most of the training and sacrifice, then, ends in loss and obscurity.  So are their stories inspirational or cautionary?

My son really enjoyed Little League (organized baseball teams for children) when he was a child.  about the time he turned 10, though, the minority of kids with talent (and their parents with ambition) took over the teams, consigning all of the other kids to occasional participation while they chased distant athletic scholarships and sports contracts.

It seemed wrong on two levels.  Kids who enjoyed playing were told they were not good enough and stopped playing.  Kids who were modestly good were told they could be great when none actually ever would be. It was a lose-lose. 

McKayla Maroney vault landingI can think of three counter-arguments to the question of whether loser’s lives have been wasted in pursuit of something that they are unlikely to attain.

  • It’s their life.  They have talent, they love what they do, and their pursuit of winning the Olympics yield personal benefits in any case.  Many have lived better lives for the nurturing, coaching, and access to resources along the way; many will go on to teach, mentor, and  motivate others long after the Games are over.  Most won’t fall by the wayside, branded as failures.
  • They are locally inspiring.  Everyone comes from somewhere, and has a long presence in their community, their country, that others identify with and  are proud of.  Every athlete who leaves the Olympics a loser will returns home a winner in their community.
  • They create winners.  A highly competitive field produces exceptional performances: because many can do amazing things, one is pushed to do something superlative.

I think that all of this could be said equally of competitors from Jordyn Wieber to Hamadou Issaka.


mytwopees said...

Thoughtful. Losers creating winners. Just a point of correction, the Rower is Nigerien and not Nigerian i.e someone from Niger Republic

David Hampton said...

Corrected, many thanks!