Winners and Losers, or: Sports are Good (!)

As I’ve been watching the Olympics this year, I’ve been struck by three realizations:

Getty images

Getty Images

1. Athletes like tattoos.
2. Flag-themed nailpolish is trending.
3. Competition is a beautiful thing.

The first two observations aren’t very earth-shattering. However, the third one made my 16-year-old self die of shock. I never had much, if any, affection for sports when I was a kid. I was the ‘easy out’ on the recess kickball court. I was the kid who swung like an idiot for the badminton birdie, only to miss it by four feet. I was the kid who sunk the basketball into the other team’s net. You get the picture.

So, in the blazing tradition of all teenagers everywhere, I dismissed that at which I sucked. English class? No problem. Gym class? Genuinely terrifying. Therefore, English must be valuable, and gym must be a waste of time. Right? During high school orientation, the athletic director introduced himself by saying, “Welcome to high school and the other half of your education: Athletics.” I think my derisive snort is still echoing in the auditorium.

(I may or may not have been something of a pain in the ass when I was fourteen.)

Meanwhile, in an Olympic-level contortion of cognitive dissonance, I happily went out for swimming in the winter and track & field in the spring (though, granted, I was only interested in track because the hottest guys in school were on the team). While I was mocking sports as activities fit only for meatheads, I was also participating in them. I didn’t go out for team sports, but that was largely because you had to try outto be on those teams. By contrast, anyone willing to wander around in a bathing suit could swim, and anyone willing to wear teeny tiny yellow shorts in front of all the hot boys could run track.

Me on the high school track. I didn’t have any tattoos or fun nail art, but I DID have pink hair.

Sign me up!

It never ceases to amaze me how glad I am that I played those sports in high school. I wasn’t very good, and I didn’t always take it that seriously, but I did experience the thrill of seeing my times improve, and I did learn skills that I’d never have even been exposed to in the classroom–for instance, how to laugh it off when you attempt the high jump and end up landing on your head on the track, having jumped in the wrong direction.

One thing that always strikes me during the Olympics is that losing is harder than winning. All the athletes have dedicated, at the very least, large portions of their lives to an event that happens once every four years. In many, if not most, cases, their families have sacrificed a lot to give them the chance. If they blow it, they let down their team, their family, and their country. And millions of people watch it happen.

And yet, even though many of them do blow it, they all keep on trucking. Yes, it’s hard to win gold in Women’s Gymnastics. But how much harder is it to fall off the damn balance beam and then get back on it and finish the routine? Holy crap. Or to fall off your bike in the middle of a road race and then get back on it, literally bleeding from the elbow, and keep riding? These aren’t just dream-crushing mistakes; they’re frakking embarrassing.

Worse, perhaps, is that it doesn’t take a huge mistake to lose. Sometimes you are at your personal best, and the people around you are simply… better. Maybe they worked harder or smarter, or maybe they’re just better.

Some people don’t like competition because contests can only have one winner, which means everyone else has to lose. I used to agree with that sentiment. I’d cry when someone fell off the balance beam, no matter which team they were on, and hate the winner just a little bit because they’d won on the back of everyone else’s loss.I don’t feel that way anymore. Yes, my heart went out to the Russians last night. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge the American’s the win. They were better, and they won. And today is a new day. The loss only ruins someone’s life if they let it. But the attempt–that’s where the beauty lies.

Now, when I look back on high school and “the other half of my education: athletics,” I’m still not willing to concede that sports are 50% of education. But I am willing to concede that they are a legitimate–nay, an important–part of education. That they are a good use of taxpayer dollars, that they benefit a huge percentage of teenagers, and that they are important even, or perhaps especially, because someone has to “lose.”

Oh, I’ve also learned that, just because someone is good at something I can’t do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a meathead.

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1 Comment

  1. MIchele

     /  August 1, 2012

    Love the blog, love the Olympics, and you love that you spurred my memories of the intramural basketball and softball teams I played on in high school and college. I wasn’t good enough to make a real team, but it was fun to be a part of those teams (and then have a beer after…in college of course). ;D
    PS I might have been a part of these teams because of a meathead or two. They were co-ed.


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