“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
UCLA football coach Red Sanders
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
The Olympic Creed
Is it possible to believe in both of those quotations? Because I do. I want one of those inspirational posters that includes both of them. Say, a tiger climbing a cliff with a gazelle carcass slung across its back: an image to remind me that competing is its own reward-and that winning trumps not-winning, by a long shot.
In 1996, shoe and apparel behemoth Nike posted a billboard in Atlanta, site of that year’s Olympic Summer Games, that offered a sentiment in tune with Sanders and a generation of football coaches he inspired: “You don’t win silver- you lose gold.” Comedy behemoth Jerry Seinfeld has a standup routine with a similar theme, suggesting that the silver medal says to a competitor, “You’re the No. 1 loser. No one lost ahead of you.” Mimicking the photo-finish of a race, he holds his face still and says “Greatest guy in the world,” then he moves his face back a millimeter or so and says, “Never heard of him.”
A 1995 psychological study reveals that Seinfeld is onto something, suggesting silver medalists are less happy than bronze medalists- perhaps because they are more acutely aware of what might have been. As far back as 1892, psychologist William James observed the same phenomenon:
So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has “pitted”himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.
My poetry manuscript recently was one of seven finalists in a contest, which is almost awesome. Lots of entrants, lots of poets, presumably many publishable books, and mine came close. Really close. I even received a congratulations e-mail from a friend. The rest of you are looking at my byline over this column and thinking, “Never heard of him.”
During the just-closed London Olympics, Nike once again weighed in on the topic, this time with a TV spot that is much more touchy-feely, more motivational- more along the lines of the Olympic Creed. It features a wide-angle shot of an overweight youth running toward the camera along a country road while a voiceover opines about the nature of greatness: “Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We’re all capable of it. All of us.” The commercial ends with the boy still running as the words “Find your greatness” fill the screen. Honestly, it’s pretty inspirational, this kid working hard and the idea that we’ve all got an extra gear inside us. We are the chubby kid, and we should all get our butts out there and run. I know I found it motivating.
Not everyone saw the commercial as positively as I did, though. A poet I know was griping on a certain popular social media outlet about the spot, complaining that greatness is not found but achieved. Another writer chimed in on the thread, offering that true greatness is rare and most of us will never see it. I guess I know what they mean- I think they’re saying something along the lines of what the character Dash says in The Incredibles when his mother tells him everyone is special: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
But I have to say, I see greatness all over the place. Maybe, though, I’m defining it a little differently. For me, greatness is not necessarily about the totality of a person or a life. No, I think greatness is found in smaller moments- in excerpts, events, instants. Example: This week I started reading the collected works of the poet Zbigniew Herbert. Is he a great poet? To me, that’s the wrong question. Who am I to judge that? Who is anyone? What I can say for sure is that he wrote some great poems and some great lines. There is greatness within that collection.
The Olympics had plenty of greatness, too, these moments made of 100 percent pure awesome. They were all over the place, examples of people pushing themselves to the limit. I could list athlete after athlete, event after event. Yes, the Olympics are overblown and overhyped and politically problematic and expensive and about selling shoes. But the whole thing is also two weeks of triumph and achievement. Pretty great, in other words.
For me, my favorite part of the London Games was watching the gold-medal run of U.S. women’s soccer team. In particular, the semifinal and final games were thoroughly entertaining and inspirational events.
Back to greatness, though. Does having won the gold medal qualify the U.S. women as great? I don’t know. They won, which some certainly would suggest is all that matters. But they also got lucky along the way. Just ask Canada. In that semifinal game, the Canadian team was on the bad side of at least one extremely questionable call. The team and its fans were in a state of apoplexy after the game, feeling understandably cheated.
All the moral outrage in the world doesn’t change the result, though. And every successful team or individual can point to moments of luck along the way. Luck is part of sports. Part of life. This person won a first-book contest because their aesthetic happened to match that of the judge; that other person had a chapbook published by their friend with a press. Someone else gets ahead because they’re younger or better-looking or had the right mentor. In the end, complaining about it gets you exactly nowhere. So Sanders is right, right? Winning is all that matters. How you get there- well, that’s not nearly so important.
My favorite player on the U.S. women’s soccer team is the goalkeeper, Hope Solo. She’s brash and brilliant, and draws as much attention for saying controversial things off the pitch as she does for her heroics on it. She made a number of saves in the gold-medal game that saved the day for the United States side- saves that were inarguably great.
One in particular stands out in my mind. A Japanese striker fired a shot high toward the net, and Solo lunged up and back, leaving her feet and just getting to the ball before it crossed into the goal, punching it up and safely away.
Hope. Solo. There has never been a more perfectly named athlete.
In that moment when the opposing striker is lining up a blow, as the ball ricochets off a cleated foot and howls toward a gaping net with everything you’ve ever worked for on the line, what does a goalkeeper have but hope? Hope that the angle of the shot will not be impossible, that the velocity will not be too fast. Hope that your body will respond, will do what you ask of it.
And what are you if not solo? In those micro seconds, there is only you. Only you between ball and net, between success and failure, between gold and silver. Between greatness and something much less.
Writing is much the same. We all want to be great writers, but in the end we don’t get to decide that. All we can do is put in the effort and hope it pays off. Whether it’s something you find or something you achieve, at its heart, writing is a solitary exercise. It is you and the page and so many, many possible outcomes. And hope.
Amorak Huey worked as a sports journalist for newspapers in Florida, Kentucky and Michigan. He now teaches writing at Grand Valley State University. His poetry has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2012, PANK, The Southern Review, Rattle, Poet Lore, and other print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak.