Paul Vallely: Sometimes the only person to beat is yourself

The expectations of the public, says Rebecca Adlington, can be different from those of the athlete

Share
Related Topics

The Olympics are not really about sport. What makes us engage with them is something deeper. The London Games have reached through our television screens to bond us emotionally with individuals engaged in a succession of small struggles that say something universal about what it means to be human.

The past two weeks have told the stories of men and women wrestling in an arena bounded by triumph and failure, elation and pain, euphoria and disappointment. They are our modern myths which show that the human spirit is truest under pressure, win or lose. There was something awe-inspiring about the effortless elegance of the modest Kenyan 800m runner David Rudisha, who became the first person to break a world record on the Olympic Stadium track. And there's a magnificence about the exuberant arrogance of the double-gold sprinter Usain Bolt who capped his 100m and 200m victories with the words: "I'm now a legend. I am the greatest athlete to live."

But for all the gold medals it has been the losers who have taught us most, and not because, as Brits, we have a self-indulgent predilection, in the tradition of Dunkirk, to snatch reassurance from defeat. Team GB was tactically outman-oeuvred in the very first big event, the men's cycling road race, for which Mark Cavendish, the reigning world champion and a three-times stage winner at this year's Tour de France, was the favourite. As the Games progressed Cavendish's 29th place was overshadowed by the grace with which, as a BBC commentator, he analysed the performances of others.

There was a similar magnanimity from Louis Smith, the first Briton in a century to win an individual gymnastics medal. He tied on top score but, after seeing gold awarded to his arch-rival for finesse, said: "To come second against one of the best pommel-horse workers the world has ever seen? I'm a happy guy." And Tom Daley refused to blame his partner when they came fourth in the synchronised diving, saying: "We're a team. We win together and we lose together."

We are used to hearing sports coaches say things like: "Nice guys finish last" or "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." The Olympic ideal proclaimed by the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, that "the most important thing is not to win but to take part", appeared to have given way to the ad slogan used by Nike for the 1996 Atlanta Games: "You don't win silver, you lose gold."

We have had touches of that cynicism again, with the Badminton players from China, South Korea and Indonesia doing their best to lose in order to secure an easier opponent in the next round. Then there was the Briton who admitted that he deliberately crashed his bike, the Algerian runner who pulled out of one event with a "bad knee" and then won 1,500m gold the next day, or the Japanese women's soccer team which played for a draw to avoid having to travel to Scotland for their next game.

The difference between success and merely winning was clear when the Australian gold medallist, Anna Meares, nudged Victoria Pendleton into veering out of her lane in the cycling sprint final. Pendleton was penalised but Meares, who has ridden with her elbows throughout her career, was not. It deprived us of what would have been a thrilling deciding run. Yet Pendleton, who was distraught at the penalty, gave her rival a hug and next day brushed aside the incident which had so unnerved her. The women's reactions highlighted the difference between gamesmanship and sportsmanship. "I'm so fucking proud of you," her coach whispered to her after the race, not realising the microphones were on. So were we all.

Some victories are hollow, then, but some defeats are glorious. Curtis Beach did not even make the Olympics. But in the US decathlon trials beforehand he sacrificed his lead and pulled over to let Ashton Eaton pass him. Beach knew Ashton could set a new world decathlon record that day – which he did – and did not want to block his route to glory. Beach didn't make the Olympics (where Eaton won gold) but in his hometown strangers approach him and asked to shake his hand.

Losing is a relative business. There are those for whom only gold counts. "Even though I'm holding a silver medal, it still feels completely heart-wrenching," said a distraught Zac Purchase after the sculling-pairs final. By contrast, gold-hopefuls Rebecca Adlington and Beth Tweddle seemed genuinely delighted with bronze. Much depends on whether an athlete sees themselves as in competition with others or with themselves in the struggle to achieve personal best. Sometimes, as Adlington admitted, the expectations of the public are different from those of the athlete which is why, after bettering her time at Beijing, she was so "pleased and proud" of her bronze.

All of which explains why on the wall of the players' entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon is written Kipling's line: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same...". Failure is not about not winning. It is about not having done yourself full justice.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities