The Agony of Defeat?

The Olympics are almost over and the closing ceremonies are tonight as I write this post. Throughout the last three weeks, the world was watching their nation’s respective Olympic teams on TV and all devices. We saw many victories, records broken, and of course, the heartache of defeat. One thing that came to my mind was not so much how to celebrate a victory despite lingering COVID-19 restrictions, but how to comfort those who didn’t win a medal.

I don’t want to call them “losers” because it can be a loaded word. At the same time, I cannot escape the fact that they didn’t win either. Furthermore, in some instances, the ‘loser’ actually gets the Silver medal and thus still won the right to stand on the victor’s podium.

What helpful words can you say?

What do you say?

First of all, here’s a list of what you should not say.

  1. You suck. — What? You think the athlete does not feel bad enough???
  2. Better luck next time. —- There is no guarantee of a next time. The next Olympics is in 3 short years. A lot could happen in those three years. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that life is short and precious.
  3. You should have trained harder. — False. No matter how good you are, there is always someone younger, faster, better, and hungrier for Olympic gold than you. Lastly, there is always pure bad luck where there was a sudden gust of wind or a rogue wave.
  4. Here’s what I would have done. — Any suggestion you might want to offer, that athlete’s coach would probably have said something similar long before you did.

There are practical reasons to think about this especially if you know someone who did compete in the Olympics and didn’t come home with the gold, silver, or bronze. Worse, they were injured and medically withdrawn from the games. Two examples came to mind: in the preliminary women’s badminton tournament, it was US versus China. Beiwen Zhang, the US player had won the first set and was about 10 minutes in the second set. She was behind by two points but still in the game. Zhang lunged for the shuttlecock and then it was all over for her in a matter of seconds because she had torn her Achilles tendon.

The other example: Jonathan Horne of Germany. Horne was the reigning world champion in karate-ka. At the Olympics, Horne broke his elbow with 20 seconds in the match. That probably hurt emotionally just as much as physically.

Same goes for teams. I think it is just as bad for a team to reach the top – to have beaten everyone else but the final match. Whether a player made a specific error that cost the game, a referee made a bad call, or something in general, needless to say, it can be very heartbreaking.

Here is what I would probably say:

  1. I am proud of you of everything you have achieved.
  2. You will always have my full support.
  3. Nothing (if appropriate).

I noticed something watching the Serbian and American women’s volleyball teams. Whenever they lost a point, sometimes they got together in a very quick group hug. The message: no recriminations. No one is to be blamed even if someone did make an error. There is something profound about that and I believe this should be carried forward long after the game is over.

Sooner or later, within a reasonable time, the sting of the loss is no longer so sharp. There is something in every athlete that shakes off the loss and begins training again. The motivations are already in that person. If they need surgery and a recovery period, so be it; they are already looking at life and routines in the future.

Personally, I find it just as inspiring as the person did get the gold (or silver or bronze).

See you all in Paris 2024

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