Jennifer Jones went to China considered a good bet for gold and a mortal lock for a medal. The former Olympic champion is the Chris Carter of curling – all she does is catch touchdowns.
But things went sideways for her almost immediately. Jones and her rink lost three of their first four and were almost out before it had started. The next week was a frantic rearguard action. On the final day of round robin, all they needed to do was win. They couldn’t. Three teams – Japan, Britain and Canada – were tied for two playoff spots. Canada was knocked out on a statistical technicality.
As she walked off backstage, Jones passed the Japanese. They’d apparently thought they were out before someone clued them in.
Jones could have blown by them without anyone thinking anything of it. Or just waved or shook her head. But she stopped to congratulate two of them. The three women hugged for a long time. The Japanese players appeared to cry. Had you not known who finished where, you’d have thought Jones was comforting them.
Jones didn’t win anything at the Olympics, but she did something as or more useful. In her quiet, un-showy way, she showed the rest of us how to lose.
Losing is starting to get a bad rap. A lot of people are suddenly worried about how losing affects athletes. Not just a little worried, which makes sense. But red-alert worried. Maybe-it’s-better-to-quit-than-risk-losing worried.
That would strike off at least half the rationale for holding the Olympics. It is a mistake to think the purpose of the Games is showing us how to win.
What use is that? Like the vast, vast majority of competitors here, most of us won’t win anything in life. We’re happy enough just getting by.
Impressionable people don’t need to be shown how to comport themselves after shattering a world record and getting our picture on the front page of the paper.
What might be helpful for people is seeing how you handle yourself after your best-laid plans come totally unlaid in real time. How do you handle that?
There is the Jones way – magnanimity. That’s the best way. It’s the most generous and speaks to a person who’s got her priorities pointed due north. It is doubtless a function of Jones’s age – 47. Roughly speaking, every decade of life halves the number of things that really get to you. By the time you reach middle age, you’re down to health emergencies, human tragedy and traffic.
There is the Mikaela Shiffrin way – obstinance. That’s the most impressive way.
Shiffrin is the best skier in the world and the most cursed skier in the Olympics. She could’ve won five events here. She bombed out of three and might as well have done the same in the other two (finishing ninth and 18th). Such was her misery that whether she would continue throwing herself at each successive disaster became a multiday story.
Most of us would have called it after the first couple of bombs. Shiffrin mused aloud about the idea. Had she done so, a lot of people would have applauded her for prioritizing self-care. There was no reputational risk to quitting.
But Shiffrin kept at it. There was a marvellous dignity in the way she kept plugging and plugging and failing and plugging. It’s a far better example to the rest of us than watching her slice through a slalom course like she came out of the womb on skis. It’s a reminder that there is real effort involved here and, when it doesn’t work out, a real cost, too.
There is the Jarl Magnus Riiber way – imperturbability. Riiber is the guy who went the wrong way in the Nordic combined.
He’d been put in COVID-19 isolation upon arrival in Beijing and hadn’t been allowed to practise. He’d never skied the course here before he competed on it. After building up a sizable lead, Riiber got his directions mixed up. That’s how a first-place finish became an eighth-place disaster.
Afterward, Riiber was unfazed: “It’s a silly mistake.”
He chose to blame his conditioning after two weeks locked up in a hotel room, rather than his mental error: “On a normal day with that mistake as well I would be in the fight.
In other words, “I don’t worry about the things I cannot control.”
Life is going to do things to you that are not fair. You are going to make silly mistakes and pay for them. But there is no use in shaking your fist at the sky. Not because it’s not allowed but because it’s not going to help. Riiber has that figured out.
It’s become fashionable to say there is no wrong way to lose. Well, yeah, there is.
There’s no wrong way to manage the logistics of losing. Anybody can lose any way. But losing that leaves you too frightened to try again is wrong.
Nobody need do things they really don’t want to do. Especially so when it comes to sports. On a sliding scale of things we think are important vs. things that really are important, no human activity is more out of whack than elite sports. Bringing it down a cultural notch is God’s work.
But if “I don’t want to do things that might make me feel bad” was everyone’s bar, nothing remarkable would ever happen. In order to sustain that system, everybody would need to win at least some of the time. That’s another way of saying it’s unsustainable.
We have to make room in the world for people to lose with dignity. To fall directly on their heads and not just maintain their honour, but if handled right, amplify it.
Only sports allows us to see that process in real time. The pros never really lose. They win regardless of the score.
But at the Olympics you see the real effects of losing. Those can be awful. But then you can see how some people turn an enormous personal setback into a universal lesson or an opportunity for kindness or a simple demonstration of hard-headedness.
Any one of those losses is far more valuable to the rest of us than passively witnessing a hundred victory celebrations.
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