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The Olympic Pursuit Of Life Lessons

by Jack Bowen


The 2018 Olympic Games will yield considerably more losers than winners, despite there being a record number of medals awarded.  It’s an unavoidable fact of such a competition.  Though prevailing wisdom throughout the ages seems to suggest that this majority group actually prospers by losing—to the loser go the spoils.  

We’re told losing builds character, primarily through the experience of adversity.  As coach Bill Courtney reminds his players in the Oscar-winning documentary, Undefeated, “The measure of a man’s character is not determined by how he handles his wins, but how he handles his failures.”  In addition, a loss provides a greater opportunity to discover areas for improvement: we learn more from one loss than 100 wins, so the adage goes.  And during the more pensive time following a loss, the athlete experiences a greater opportunity for reflection and self-understanding.  Where else can you spend a few hours getting some good exercise and come away with such profound insight and personal growth?

The US Women's National Team at the 2017 Ice Hockey World Championship The US Women's National Team at the 2017 Ice Hockey World Championship

The winners, on the other hand, miss out on much of these intrinsic goods in exchange for a medal or trophy, some celebration, and that good feeling aligned with winning.  And while the small minority of athletes competing at the Olympic and professional level may also receive financial rewards for winning, the huge majority of athletes do not.

Clearly we should avoid the absurd paradox that one might be tempted to construct: if losing is so good then we should strive for losses—why strive for an objective that yields lesser goods?  Though it’s also worth considering whether this is all just sour grapes from those who lose.  Are we to imagine the members of the U.S. Women’s Hockey team who lost to Canada in the 2014 gold medal game skating off thinking, “You may be celebrating now, but we achieved something of much greater depth?"

Some 'non-winners' at the 2014 Sochi Olympics: Speedskaters fall in the 500m finals -- Credit: USA Today Some 'non-winners' at the 2014 Sochi Olympics: Speedskaters fall in the 500m finals -- Credit: USA Today

This particular game afforded the U.S. players a truly profound moment to cash in on the spoils of losing.  The tougher the loss, the more existential goods one acquires.  In the final 3:30 of the game, the U.S. team gave up two goals—including a double-ricochet—and also missed a full-court open-net goal by an “eyelash,” according to the game’s commentator.  Canada went on to win the game in overtime.

The women on the Canadian team all blissfully celebrated their fourth consecutive Olympic gold for Team Canada.  The U.S. team morosely attended the medal ceremony, many of them tearful, likely starting to cash in on that character building, self-reflection, etc.

Given that the majority of teams and athletes end up as non-winners (euphemistically speaking), this whole sporting endeavor must, then, be about process, about journey, and not about the objective of winning.  As tennis great Martina Navratilova once commented, “The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.”  This, coming from a woman who achieved 1442 moments of victory in her professional singles career, and just 219 moments of character building.

In aiming our focus on the pursuit of the objective, we can achieve authenticity when we recognize the virtues couched in the suffering of a loss.

Dostoevsky suggests in Notes from the Underground, “Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to [humans] as well-being.”  Could it be that the suffering of the 2014 Women’s Olympic Hockey Team matches the benefit of the “well being” of the 1980 Men’s Miracle Team?

Along with this big-picture paradigm-rattling insight, we also take away something pragmatic in our sporting lives.  Winners and losers can each borrow a little something from the other in their experiences of wins and losses.  The winner can reflect on the game and seek areas for improvement, as the perfectly played contest has yet to be achieved.  No need to waste the opportunity to learn from 100 wins in awaiting that one teaching moment of a loss.  And the losers can take solace in the process of the game, allowing the character building to run its course.  The only way to achieve the personal growth from such instances is to be fully conscious of it all.

So, yes, to the victor go some of the spoils, but not all of them.  It just might be that to the loser go some pretty good spoils as well, which works out nicely for all athletes, Olympic or not.

Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 19 years where they have won the league championships 17 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe.  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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