Why do we watch the Olympics? For some, it’s about the opportunity to root unabashedly for your country. For others, it’s about the stories of overcoming adversity. These are the two narratives that get the most time on American TV, anyway.
But there are others. As a kid, I remember growing up with two VHS tapes: “The Thrill of Victory” and “The Agony of Defeat,” sponsored by Dakar Noir, which I can smell faintly as I recollect. I loved them both, but I think I preferred “The Agony of Defeat” more. I loved the crashes, the spectacular failures.
But while victory is glorious, and defeat can be spectacular, it is the human reaction to defeat which, for me, is the most compelling narrative of the Olympics. In defeat we witness the true character of the competitors. Are they upset? Do they blame? Do they applaud? Do they thank? Do they cry?
Today, we got to witness a stunning finish in the Women’s Cycling Road Race. There was a climb which the riders summited 20 kilometers from the finish. Annemiek van Vleuten crested the climb first, with about a 10-second advantage over American Mara Abbott. A group of three riders crested about 40-seconds further back.
Midway down the descent, cameras picked up van Vleuten losing control on the descent at 30-40 miles per hour, hurtling over her handlebars and crashing headfirst and upside-down into the curb. It was precisely the type of spectacle which fascinated me as a young kid, but which now turns my stomach in knots. The camera following Abbott, who had drifted farther back on the descent picked up van Vleteun motionless about 20 seconds later.
With no news about van Vleuten, attention turned back to the race, and Abbott came onto the road along Copacabana Beach with a 35-second advantage over the chasing group of three with 7.5 kilometers to go. Gradually the gap started coming down. She had 20 seconds with 2 kilometers to go, and still 10 seconds with 1 kilometer to go. At 200 meters to go, she was still in the lead, but the three riders were right behind her, and having ridden the entire last 20 kilometers solo, Abbott had nothing left for the sprint to the line. After 141 kilometers, she was 150 meters short of a medal.
She finished fourth, the worst place there is to finish in the Olympics (except, perhaps, for the hospital). She was visibly distraught at the finish line, where her family consoled her.
But minutes later, she gave this interview with Steve Porino.
She talks about riding the best race she could have and questioning what success means. She was within 0.11% of victory. The interview was within 10 minutes of her crossing the line. Who even agrees to do an interview in that moment? Champion to medal-less in 150 meters.
This, to me, is textbook dignity. There’s a sense in which it is reassuring just to know that somewhere in another human resides the power to have so much grace and composure under such trying circumstances. May we all be blessed with similar amounts of dignity.
The discovery of new boundaries of human spirit – that is why we watch the Olympics.
Photo by David Markham via Flickr