Not everyone can be a winner


In last place

The thrill of victory may be satisfying enough for many Olympics spectators, but others may get tired of the relentless focus on the gold medal winners.

Where’s the agony of defeat in this year’s harmonious Olympic Games? Liu Xiang came through on that front, but for less well-known failures, we have to look to this week’s Southern Metropolis Weekly, which gives full-page profiles to twelve Olympic athletes who didn’t even come close to a bronze medal, much less a gold. These are the sort of human interest stories that usually get reported before the athletes compete, not after they’ve had their moment to shine.

Why lavish so much attention on competitors who don’t help a country’s standings in the medal table? Because they’re still heroes, says the text on the cover:

They failed on the field, but they’re heroes all the same. Like the champions, they illustrate the Olympic Spirit.

Or as the DFL blog puts it, “Because they’re there, and you’re not.”

The featured athletes, half from China and half from other countries:

  • Liu Xiang (刘翔), men’s 110m hurdles. Was it his hamstring? His Achilles tendon? Or, as SMW reports, was it actually a callous on his heel that had broken open?
  • Wang Lei (王磊), men’s individual epee. Wang won a silver in Athens but was knocked out of the round of 16 by Bas Verwijlena, who is relatively unknown in China.
  • Shi Zhiyong (石智勇), men’s 69kg weightlifting. Shi hurt his back in the snatch and dropped out of the clean and jerk.
  • Zhang Liang (张亮), men’s single and double sculls. Zhang missed his heat for the single sculls race, and he and his teammate Su Hui were disqualified from the later double event. The explanation given was that he mistakenly thought he was in a later heat. Zhang’s father is unconvinced:

    He recalled something his son had told him: Even if I’m dead tired from training I won’t come home. With such a desire to succeed, he doesn’t believe his son could possibly have gotten the heat time wrong. He wants to see Zhang as soon as possible and ask him what really happened that day. The National Games are coming up, and no one wants any further problems.

  • Hua Tian (华田), equestrian. Hua fell off his horse during the cross-country phase, resulting in immediate disqualification.
  • Oscar Figueroa (Colombia), men’s 62kg weightlifting. An injury to his right hand prevented him from getting a grip on the weight.
  • Hussein Jebur and Haidar Nozad (Iraq), men’s double sculls. Came in last place in their group, but making it to the Olympics in the first place was an accomplishment.
  • Thomas Daley (UK), men’s synchronized 10m diving. Nerves ruined his entry and he and teammate Brian Aldridge placed last in the final.
  • Wendy Hale (Solomon Islands), women’s 58kg weightlifting. Outclassed by lifters from much stronger teams. Hale was one of three athletes on the Solomon Islands team and said afterward that coming to the Olympics was an opportunity to compete on the world stage and let the world see her county’s athletes.
  • Taufik Hidayat (Indonesia), men’s singles badminton. The defending champion crashed out in the second round, falling to Malaysia’s Wong Choong Hann.
  • Gary Russell (USA), boxing. Failed to make weight.
  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (Russia), women’s singles tennis. Third seed, knocked out in the third round by China’s Li Na.

The magazine also presents mini-bios of a dozen more athletes who were knocked out in the first round or who came in last in their group, and then rounds up six of the most famous last-place finishes in history.

In his introduction to the feature, deputy editor Chang Ping muses on how we measure victory, in the Olympics as well as in life in general:

The Eliminated Majority

by Chang Ping / SMW

A boy once asked his mother where he came from, and his mother explained that in the beginning, hundreds of millions of sperm stood at the starting line like Olympic athletes. When the gun sounded, they sped off trying to be the first to reach the egg….the boy said, “Oh, I get it. So I’m the winner!”

This story says that by being born into this world, you’re already a champion. It also says that from the first, life is a marathon where all of the competitors are defending champions, each one proud, skilled, and full of ambition. No wonder life is so tough.

It’s probably because of the memories of that victorious sperm that created you that you can easily remember your record of successes: the college entrance exam brought out armies of students all aiming to enter a narrow gate, but you received the university’s acceptance letter; unemployment is growing, but you’re still being promoted at your company; your wife was pursued by lots of people before you got married, but the handsome ones didn’t have your money, the rich ones couldn’t match your looks, and the rich, good-looking ones weren’t as resourceful as you were….

But if you have the courage to face reality, you’ll find your life is actually full of failure: you’d already learned shame but you couldn’t stop wetting the bed; you plucked up your courage to write the first love letter of your life, but she handed it over to the teacher instead; and do you still remember how many girls you chased in your youth? When they said to you, “Let’s just stay friends,” they were giving you a less than ideal score, and in the end you exited the race, injured. When you get to middle age and feel like you’d accomplished something in your career, take a moment to look back on the dreams you had when you were 18: you’ll find that most of them are unrealizable goals….

Have you only been counting gold medals on the TV the past few days? You’re not that stupid. Even though things aren’t as cruel as “a victor standing astride ten thousand corpses,” champions are still only a small minority. Behind every champion sit the eliminated majority. But last place on the field isn’t really last place in the world. Coming in last place here was an opportunity that thousands upon thousands of athletes can only dream of. They are scattered in every corner of the globe, training and waiting….

However, the athletes who met with defeat on the field stand for the great courage and competitive spirit of the eliminated majority, in a symbolic reenactment of human life: you will inevitably fail, yet you continue onward. Lu Xun wrote about this truth in “The First and the Last,” encouraging people to “not be ashamed to be last.” His final lines are quoted most often: “When I watch a sports meet, I often think: of course praise is due to the victors, but it is those competitors who press on to the finish line despite having fallen behind, and the spectators who do not laugh at them, who are the future backbone of China.” The lesson of Liu Xiang is that when you have done your utmost, then even if you do not make it to the finish line, you will still gain the world’s understanding and blessing. And in doing so we bless ourselves, too.

Back to human life: no matter how far you run or how good you look doing it, the finish line for everyone is the grave. So, in this competition, will you run faster, or slower? If I am not mistaken, I’d guess you want to come in last place!

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