By Tom Allnutt
Britain’s first four days in the Olympics preach the less popular lessons of losing
“Grass grows, birds fly, and waves still pound the sand.”
Muhammad Ali uttered some of the most cherished words in sporting history but when reflecting on the implications of losing, on this occasion sport’s most reliable orator was having an off-night.
Offer this consolation to several suffering British Olympics losers this morning and depending on the person involved you could end up either being ippon thrown to the floor (the judo move that finished off Euan Burton) or with a canoe paddle wacked around your face.
There’s no getting away from it, overall Britain’s Olympians have thus far disappointed.
Cavendish was expected to win gold in the cycling road race but finished empty handed. Tom Daley was expected to win a medal, perhaps even gold, in the synchronised diving but finished fourth. Rajiv Ouseph was knocked out of the badminton today by an opponent ranked 13 places below him. David Florence, world number 1, failed to reach the final of the canoe singles this morning. Euan Burton saw his hopes of Olympic judo gold pinned down and shattered in just under four minutes. And so the list goes on.
If Britain’s London 2012 ended after day four it would go down as the “I gave it my all” games in which sweat was expelled but few managed to make par and many tragically under-performed.
Barton could barely hold back the tears as he came to terms with ‘a quarter of a century’ of training, locked, twisted and floored within just a few seconds.
“I feel like I’ve let myself down, let my coaches down, let everybody I’ve ever trained with down, let my mum and dad and brother down,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s the end of my competitive judo career but it’s probably the end of my Olympic career. I’m pretty sure you won’t see me in Rio.”
Better days are surely yet to come.
But in the midst of impending adulation and medal-ridden ecstasy lest we forget Britain’s day four disappointments for whom others’ success will be yet another bitter pill to swallow.
Not because they gave it their all, which they almost certainly did, not because they let anyone down, which they undoubtedly didn’t, and not because despite it all, grass grows, birds fly and waves still pound the sand.
Ali was wrong. Sport is always far more than just a job. He, more than anyone, should know that sportsmen don’t just practise their profession, they are defined by it.
And therefore in failing, sportsmen feel defined by failure.
Most are lucky enough to find consolation in having another attempt but the cruelty of the Olympics is such that many, like Burton, are not afforded such a privilege.
For many Olympians therefore, failure is their lasting legacy.
But if legacies were less about sound bites, computer-generated motifs and finding a font that fits on the belly of a London 2012 teddy bear, the legacy of losing would be as good a legacy as any.
Because sport is as much about losing as it is about anything else. Sport is for the vast majority of time blunt, candid and brutal.
If sport was all about fairy tales Paula Radcliffe would be donning the marathon vest for her final Olympics, in her home country, settling the Olympic demons that have so, unfairly, plagued her during her magnificent career.
But sport being sport Radcliffe is at home, her fairly-tale ending crumpled in a heap of bandages and ankle supports.
If sport was all about fairy tales Burton, Florence and Cavendish would all have seen years of hard work rightfully rewarded in front of an expectant home crowd.
But sport palms off the scripts we consider masterpieces and often, like a right old spoilsport, chooses the most sober, mundane conclusions.
This is sport in its most familiar, largely disappointing, form.
In a somewhat biblical fashion it is in keeping faith through the mundane that sport occasionally rewards us with the astonishing. But these moments are, by their very nature, few and far between.
If London 2012 is to ‘Inspire a generation’ the end goal is then, presumably, to inspire a generation of winners. A generation of gold medals, of hard work justly rewarded, and of fairy-tale endings.
But the first four days of London 2012 should be more inspirational than any of that.
The first four days should show our future medal hopes that winning is entirely and absolutely exceptional.
That to win doesn’t just mean to work hard and practise long but to work harder and practise longer than every single one of your opponents.
That to win means converting years of training and rehearsal into performance and results when it really matters.
And, crucially, that even when you think you deserve it most, when the stage is set and the fairy-tale ending all perfectly laid out, winning is never a foregone conclusion.
Now if only that fit on the belly of a teddy bear.
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I'm a recently qualified journalist and I've worked in newspapers and broadcasting. I'm a dedicated follower of all sports primarily football, tennis and cricket.
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