Wednesday, August 19, 2009


It has been a great summer for losers. By which I mean that we have seen great agony in several sporting events—the type of losses that seem so unbearable they almost become ennobling.

For a start, how about the United States soccer team against Brazil in the finals of the Federation Cup in South Africa? After a very lackluster showing in the round-robin phase of the tourney, the American team squeaked into the play-offs, then suddenly came to life to defeat Spain (then number 1 in the world) 2-0, and battled to a 2-0 half-time lead in the finals against perennial powerhouse Brazil. It was sheer agony watching that lead slip away in the course of the second half. The silver lining, if there is one, is this: the United States came away with the sense that they could compete with the best—yet they remain hungry for that elusive stakes-are-down victory at the highest level.

And how about Tom Watson at the British Open? At the age of 59, he played superb golf through 71 holes, and had he sunk that 10-foot putt on 18, he would have been the oldest golfer ever to win a major—by eleven years. But he didn’t. The tournament ended in a tie, and in a four-hole playoff, after holding off the entire field for seventy-two holes, he fell behind to a single opponent (Who was it now? I don’t remember.) by four strokes! Ouch.

The most wrenching defeat of the summer was surely that of Andy Roddick in the finals of Wimbledon. Roddick has been around now for quite a while, but he still seems like that spunky All-American kid who won the U.S. Open a few years and never quite held it all together again for the length of an entire major tournament. Perhaps feeling that his “moment” was finally passing, Roddick lost fifteen pounds and at Wimbledon he held his own against Roger Federer for four long sets. He took the fifth to an almost unbelievable twenty-nine games before succumbing 16-14. No one who has played that well for that long should end up losing.

Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, came out of retirement at the age of 37 to revitalize interest in the sport on this side of the Atlantic, but he joined the team that already had the world’s best cyclist, Alberto Contador. During the race, which requires teammates to support one another following a complex and all-but-incomprehensible code of cycling strategy and ethics, Armstrong spoke of “tension” on the team. Contrador said there was no tension.

Contrador won the race, as was widely expected, though Armstrong finished third—no mean feat for a 37-year-old. After the race Armstrong announced that he was forming his own team, and Contrador felt more comfortable revealing that he had “no admiration” for his former teammate.“My relationship with Lance Armstrong is zero,” Contador said. “On a personal level I have never admired him and never will.”

Armstrong responded: “If I were him I’d drop this drivel and start thanking his team. Without them, he doesn’t win. A champion is also measured on how much he respects his teammates and opponents.”

I think Armstrong deserves a certain degree of credit for entering into a grueling competition that he’s already dominated for so long, fully aware that he probably won’t win again. (I guess some folks just like to ride their bicycles.)

The final great loser of the summer was Tiger Woods, who held the lead of the PGA Tournament for three days before losing to a largely unknown Korean golfer named V.E. Yang. Throughout the final afternoon Yang hit the kind of shots that Woods is famous for hitting, dumfounding Woods and also the announcers. Yang looked like he was having fun. Woods didn’t. After Yang sank his putt on the eighteenth, sealing the victory, the cameras drew in on Woods, hiding his face with the visor of his baseball cap and suffering the agonies of a champion who believes to the very end that he can win against all odds—but now knows that he has not.

Losing hurts. Believe me. It’s mortifying. You say to yourself, “Wait til next time,” while wondering if there will be a next time. Wondering, perhaps, why it’s so important to rise above all the others. But there’s something exhilarating about being in the fray, doing your best, making the shots, responding to the challenge.

When I was five I won a raffle, and my prize was a little beanie with a monkey sitting on top of it. If you squeezed a little rubber ball, air would rush through a tube attached to the monkey sitting on the top of your head, and he would beat a little drum.

Since then, it’s all been downhill.

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