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It seems clear why Olympic athletes are driven to compete in their sporting disciplines. But what about ...
2020-04-29 09:00:00

Enthusiasm Goes by Many Names
Why Choose to Lose?

Illustration by Igor Kubik
Enthusiasm Goes by Many Names
Enthusiasm Goes by Many Names

We know where athletes get it – at least those who are fighting for victories, medals and records. But what about the rest of us, who have no chance at any of that?

Read in 7 minutes

They called him “Turtle”, but he was more reminiscent of a bank machine on wheels. Already at the starting line he looked different from the rest. He brought to the track 133 kilograms; his rivals, half as much. His belly was an oval; theirs were flat, sculpted. When they started to run, he could barely get out of the blocks. He quickly dropped out of the pack; it couldn’t be otherwise, because he couldn’t run. That is, he could, but like other average denizens of planet Earth: he just moved his legs fast. But it had about as much in common with professional sprinting as plinking and plonking on a piano at Warsaw Chopin airport has with the Chopin Competition.

Trevor Misipeka shouldn’t have been there at all. When he boarded the plane in American Samoa, a tiny territory spread over several small islands in the Pacific, he thought that at the World Athletics Championships in Edmonton he would be competing in the shot put. But when he got to Canada it turned out that you had to qualify for that competition, and with his record he had no chance. Yet the organizers had left room for small countries and territories that were only starting to join organized competitions – in the 100-metre dash. You could just sign up. Misipeka made it onto the starting list two days before the first heats. He took last place, with a time of 14.28 seconds, one of the worst in the history of the world championships. (Maurice Greene, the Canadian who won the gold medal, was more than 4 seconds faster – an eternity at that distance.)

There are more such stories on the track, in the pool and on the field. Éric Moussambani, who couldn’t swim, jumped into an Olympic pool, and the crowd cheered for him not to drown. The clumsy Eddie Edwards stood at the top of a ski jump, launching into the air and then fighting not to fly as far as he could, but just to survive. Elizabeth Swaney competed in freestyle skiing in the Olympics and didn’t perform a single trick, concentrating only on not falling. Their determination is easy to understand. They had no money or talent, but they entered huge, elite competitions. They fulfilled their dreams and were even rewarded. The world noticed them and remembered them, as attested if nothing else by the popularity of their performances on YouTube. Misipeka’s run was watched by more than 670,000 people; Moussambani is most likely the best known athlete from Equatorial Guinea; Edwards became a cult figure for ski-jumping fans; and Swaney, an example of extraordinary determination, because to go to the games she first sought to switch her representation from America to Venezuela, and later to Hungary.

These are exceptions, of course, but they show that the joy of playing sport can be found not only at the very heights; that it’s also present where we would usually see losers. The weakest. The average. Or worse, the nameless, whom we usually don’t notice at all.

Why go up against a world champ?

“Second place is just the first loser,” Dale Earnhardt once said. In this sentence, the American racing driver encapsulated the approach to sport of the great champions, and of the kind of fans who only want to applaud victors or records. Of course, there’s nothing inappropriate in this way of understanding things; what’s more, sometimes it’s necessary. The sprinter of the ages, Usain Bolt, wasn’t satisfied with just making it to the podium: he knew he was exceptional, and the rest of the pack couldn’t match his talent. He needed the pressure to get the best out of himself; that was the only way he could approach the limits of his abilities.

But this is only part of the sporting landscape. The most visible one, and also the most elite. As many as 11,238 competitors went to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to compete for 973 medals. So fewer than 9% of the athletes made it to the podium. If we limited sport only to them, it would turn out that Bolt’s biggest rivals had no reason to spend years waking up at dawn to train, shift tonnes of iron in the gym, measure each calorie they took on board and travel to time-consuming track meets. After all, they would know that regardless of their work and sacrifices, the best they could hope for was second place. Meaning they’d lose. It’s hard to build anything on the hope that the Jamaican would be struck down by an injury or would lose his will to compete.

But Bolt’s rivals didn’t listen to Earnhardt. Rather than giving up, they worked even harder. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers all beat their personal records. Four years later, in London, the same thing happened. Bolt didn’t destroy his rivals, he spurred them on. He was a reference point: if it weren’t for him, the other runners certainly wouldn’t have achieved the kind of results they did. It wasn’t even that the race was for at most silver or bronze, or to catch the master. The point was to come off the track knowing that they had done all that their bodies would let them do. And it’s hard not to be satisfied with a personal best.

It’s the same lower down the table. Those who come fourth, fifth or sixth are seen as losers, though sometimes they’re separated from a medal by only hundredths of a second, or centimetres. They won’t make it to the podium, they won’t be applauded by tens of thousands of fans, they won’t be mobbed by sponsors, they won’t get Olympic pensions. But they’ll be among the best in the world. How many people do you know – marketing specialists, economists, pharmacists – who can say of themselves that in their field they’re behind just three or four people in the world? Or even just in Poland?

Not only the swift and strong

If Earnhardt is at one end of the scale, at the other is Zoe Koplowitz, who has finished the New York Marathon 25 times. Always in last place. “The race belongs not only to the swift and strong but to those who keep on running,” says the 71-year-old runner, who covered the 42.195 kilometres on crutches. When she was 25 years old, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that leads to disability. She reconciled herself to her fate, understanding that she wouldn’t be able to live the way she had. Her breakthrough came before she turned 40. Sick with a cold, Koplowitz was taking vitamin C. The tablet got stuck in her throat; if not for help from a co-worker, she would have choked to death. “At that point I decided that I wanted back everything that I had given up to this disease over the years, and I wanted it back more than anything I had wanted in my whole life,” Koplowitz told The New York Times. The idea of running the New York Marathon seemed crazy; at that time she was also struggling with diabetes and was out of breath after walking 100 feet.

Then came the training, the marathons completed at first in about 24 hours (the women’s world record is 2:14:04), and later, after her health worsened, in more than 33. She usually finished accompanied by friends, as the route led through the worse parts of the Bronx, and she was covering them in the small hours.

We say of people like Koplowitz that they inspire, that they break down barriers. They demonstrate to themselves that they’re not sentenced to stay at home, they give an example to others. It’s hard to say what drove her more; we know she had no less enthusiasm for hard work than all of those aiming at medals and records. Koplowitz’s effort finally paid off: her book (co-authored with Mike Celizic), The Winning Spirit: Life Lessons Learned in Last Place, was a bestseller, and she became a motivational speaker, who companies pay thousands of dollars for a talk.

Where should we look for winners?

Just a few people compete for medals; there are even fewer people like Misipeka, and Koplowitz is a special case. Somewhere between them is a huge space that holds the largest group of athletes, who provide the background for the competition. It brings together those too weak to win; too strong to take last place; too colourless to draw the attention of fans and the media. But they still have the desire, they treat sport as their job, they subordinate their entire lives to it.

Take the Bosnian swimmer Amina Kajtaz. She finished the Olympics in the top 40, and the world championships in the top 30. At the European championships she broke into the top 20. She got close to the podium only at the Mediterranean Games – in the 100-metre butterfly, she took sixth place. But that’s not a particularly prestigious tournament, known mostly to the athletes, their families, trainers and organizers.

Despite all that, the 23-year-old swimmer certainly feels that her work has meaning. She can come home from the Bosnia and Herzegovina championships with seven medals and two national records. There are moments when she holds the record in nine events. It would be hard for her to compete in popularity with footballers, basketball players or judokas, but what she does certainly has meaning. “Bosnia is the only post-Yugoslavian country without an Olympic medal – I want to change that,” says Kajtaz. Does she have a good chance of this? No. But she has a goal that drives her, that makes her want to keep developing. She doesn’t sink into self-satisfaction; her local victories prove to her that she’s moving in the right direction, but they’re absolutely not enough to satisfy her.

There are many such examples; after all, the Olympics draw the best athletes from more than 200 countries, on six continents. If somebody’s eliminated at the start, it doesn’t mean they’re a weakling. On the contrary: to get to the Olympics they have to beat the local competition, which sometimes means defeating tens of thousands of rivals.

Yes, perspective is key. For some, success will be getting to the finals; for others, the semis; for others, getting to the knockout stage. Goals and abilities vary, and it’s only when we look closely at each story that we see how winners can be found not only on the top step of the podium, but also much lower down. And the enthusiasm remains the same.

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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