Sunday, July 29, 2007

Superior Sportspersons Soar above Losing Definitions

Jim Banholzer

The mythological status that we bestow upon winning sports icons is inspirational, but all too often our must-win culture deems the person who places second a failure. Take, for instance, Germany’s Jan Ullrich: Here is a man who actually won the Tour de France bicycle race back in 1997 and earned second five other times. Mr. Ullrich is also a gold and silver medal Olympic Champion. Yet in 2005, right before that year’s race, USA Today portrayed Mr. Ullrich as an “also ran” saying, “He lacks mental toughness” (Reibal). Here is an athlete who is in the top one-billionenth percentile of all human racers –yet the media continuously portrays him as a loser. Something needs fixed when according to such doctrines, if you are not sitting on top of the world you are a letdown.

The same goes for professional sports at many levels. Even though Boston and New York’s baseball teams sometimes win pennants for World Series berths –unless the team actually wins the series, it is a tough traumatic event for the team and that team’s city! Enthusiasts, whose teams place second, truly believe that their lives as fans would have improved in glorious ways had only the most infinitesimal of heartless pebbly stones not shifted an easy grounder, bobbling onto an erroneous course through their first baseman’s legs. When this happens, teams instantly trade ‘losing’ players, while managers’ heads get the chop. If you are caught wearing the insignia or even colors of the trailing team, you are subject to ridicule for years to come –until that next rematch. Sometimes this happens even when the team is generating millions of dollars of profit, and would be considered successful by any other business model measurement.

The honorable thing to do is ignore this mockery and attempt to gain character from the process in the meantime. This is not always easy, as there are hundreds of Monday morning “expert” pundits for every professional player and coach. Yet sports figures with integrity can rise above this common challenge and prove themselves successes by disregarding this blather, knowing that, as important as fanzines portray these games to be, that there are more vital things in life to gain rewards from. Superstars can graduate to other causes and truly shine in non-sports related venues, contributing global assists to the downtrodden.

Sportspersons have lots to live up to, when glorified as idols that represent everything good in this weary world. A few aspire to and actually reach this high standard and are worthy of such idolization. It is excellent when they attain this level, but even the most glorified of heroes make mistakes. Being subject to failure humanizes the most respected of sports idols, but if they handle this quandary properly, they can come away even more victorious, albeit human. Paradoxically, being fallible enables humans to overcome mistakes, achieving higher levels of admiration than they could if they were actually flawless entities.

A prime example of sportsmanship played out recently on a field at the Spokane Special Olympics. During the 100-yard dash race, physically and mentally disabled contestants assembled, beaming full of life, each raring to win. At the gun, they started out –except for one small lad who stumbled, rolled over and started to cry. The other participants heard the boy and turned back –all eight of them. One girl with Down’s syndrome bent down on the racetrack, kissed him, and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked in unison to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood stunned. There was not a dry eye in the arena, and the cheering still echoes years later, resonating in witnesses’ heads when they recount the story. This clearly demonstrates that “True Champions” sometimes thrive unexpectedly in places, which some might wrongly regard as lowly (True Winners). Update on this thanks to "some guy"

Tales of football icons fumbling their fortunes emerge from the underside of the arena. It seems that many fabled players, after having everything in life catered for them, have had difficult times re-adjusting to less lavish lifestyles when their careers are cut short. Some end up strung out on skid row or even in jail. Bruce Lowitt from the St. Petersburg Times writes about players who have resorted to selling their Super Bowl Rings only a few years after earning them. In his story, “Getting the ring can be easier than keeping it”, he interviews Kansas City pawnshop owner Don Budd, who says, “It was hard for me to believe that someone could reach that pinnacle…and be willing to give up the one object that says, ‘I was the best.’” Nowadays, Mr. Budd averages 10 players a season, who sell out their rings in this “last line of defense between poverty and homelessness” (Lowitt).

Yet sometimes, after hitting all-time life-lows even these trounced players bounce back up again, redeeming themselves as even better persons than they had been at the height of their ball-playing careers. Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown, (who was raised by his great-grandmother from age two, because his parents were gone and his grandmother was an alcoholic) left football while at the top of his sport, moving up even higher on the scale of true importance to counsel troubled teenagers and make positive inroads into getting gangbangers off streets. After all, for kids struggling in traumatic times, seriously doubting everything, nothing beats hearing legitimately gifted voices of experience from high-profile persons who have tasted polarities of life’s sweetness and bitterness. From delicate golden syrupy pancakes stuffed with caviar and Savoy-truffles with a Faberge omelet -To soppy milquetoast and rotten eggs for breakfast with a side of saltwater decaf from Hard-Times Café.

Embracing wide spectrums of experience develops a broader person. Denial of bad experiences is necessary within certain degrees, but in many cases, denial is not the healthiest course of action.

How often in life, have you heard someone saying about a traumatic event, “I wish it hadn’t happened to me, but I’m a better person for it.” In Kathleen McGowan’s Psychology Today article, “The Hidden Side of Happiness” she shows how “a rich rewarding life often requires a messy battle with adversity” and that “there is a built-in human capacity to flourish under the most difficult circumstances” Thus the paradox, “what doesn’t kill you can actually make you stronger.” Adversity sometimes gets confused with failure and making a distinction between the two can be healing in of itself. Knowing that you have given it your best at a sporting event or some other task, yet did not “win” first place, should not by any means disallow you to proudly walk away from your valiant efforts.

In the mountaineering community, there are several well-documented incidents of professional climbers attempting to ascend high peaks, and then due to safety or weather concerns, turning around within shouting distance of the summit. Jon Krakauer, in his award-winning book Into Thin Air chronicles the case of Swedish ultra-athlete Goran Kropp. After traveling from sea-level Sweden on a specially built bicycle laden with 240 lbs of gear, robbed and beaten along the way, Goran Kropp finally reached the base of Mt. Everest, intending to climb it without bottled oxygen or Sherpa support. After a few training days, Goran reached 26,000 feet, aiming for the top the next morning right after midnight. Krakauer’s eagle-eyed perspective recounts: “For the first time in months almost no wind blasted the summit, but the snow on the upper mountain was thigh deep, making for slow exhausting progress. Kropp bulled his way relentlessly, upward through the drifts, however, about by two o’clock Thursday afternoon he’d reached 28,700 feet, just below the South Summit. But even though the top was no more than sixty minutes above, he decided to turn around, believing that he would be too tired to descend safely if he climbed any higher” (Krakauer).

“To turn around that close to the summit…,” (Rob) Hall mused with a shake of his head on May 6 as Kropp plodded past Camp Two on his way down the mountain. “That showed incredibly good judgment on young Goran’s part. I’m impressed – considerably more impressed actually, than if he’d continued climbing and made the top.”

Therefore, it is nice to see that at least in mountaineering circles that you do not have to park yourself on top of the world to be a winner. Principled warriors from other avenues of life would do well to take note of this. Being able to analyze mistakes, remember and learn from them, applying them to future tests, are one of the highest aspirations achievable and a fundamental nature of wisdom. Studying and learning from our failures is a great human gift.

It is nice that in this enlightened age of Lickity-split information, more people appreciate this dilemma, offering optimistic opportunities for better squeezing out of dangling second-leveled crevices.


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Works Cited

Krakauer, Jon. “Into Thin Air (excerpt).” Salon 24 May 1997. 20 November 2006.

Lowitt, Bruce. “Getting the ring can be easier than keeping it.” St. Petersburg Times 26 January 2001. 11 November 2006 2001/Getting_the_ring_can_.shtml

McGowan, Kathleen. “The Hidden Side of Happiness.” Psychology Today 02 May 2006. 08 November 2006 00001.html

Reibal, Sal. “Focus gives Lance head start as Tour de France nears.” USA Today 01 July 2005. 10 Nov. 2006 06-30-armstrong-cover_x.htm

“True Winners, California 2004.” 10 November 2006

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