NO Boundaries Nirmal Shekar

Sport is more often about failure

When you look beyond the podium, beyond the bright lights and ecstatic faces of fans celebrating the victory of their team or favourite icon, beyond the moment that most of us cherish — not least the winners — sport is mostly about failure. And finally, it is merely a question of when and where someone failed.

For, failures come in various guises. The also-rans fail early and make sure we don’t even remember their exit. The above-average last a little longer — they play their hearts out. The good ones, more often than not, fail at the penultimate or final hurdle.

In the event, at the end of the day, there is only one team or person standing to the last when the coveted silverware and million dollar pay checks are handed out and the shakers and movers make their eminently forgettable and worthless speeches.

One hundred and twenty seven people will have to fail for one man or woman to win a Grand Slam tennis championship. Hundreds of teams will have to face disappointment if one of them is to be crowned the World Cup winner in football.

But the first intelligent and compassionate question to ask when a good team fails is not whether they fell short of expectations but whether they gave up or threw in the towel. If the answer is No, then, in a way, the loser is as worthy of glory as the winner.

“Those who are not afraid to win are also not afraid to lose,’’ goes the old saying. There are millions of teams and individuals who won’t get through this test.

Learning valuable lessons

The point is, glorious defeats bring a mixture of pride and disappointment. The most valuable virtue of a great team is, learning valuable lessons from defeat and using them as an opportunity for future success. Losses must fuel the motivation for future triumphs.

“Defeat has a dignity that victory doesn’t know of,’’ wrote the great South American writer Jorge Luis Borges. But surely, he was talking about a particular kind of defeat.

“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated,’’ wrote Ernest Hemingway.

What the Nobel-winning American writer was hinting at was the fact that in certain situations destruction is better than defeat; and that defeat itself can acquire a new meaning.

Perhaps, more than anyone else, Britain’s Second World War hero Winston Churchill hit the bull’s eye perfectly. The man who was drenched in the Dunkirk spirit said: “In war resolution; in defeat defiance; in victory magnanimity.’’

Defiant, determined teams have enriched our sports-watching experience despite losing; and without such losses, sport itself will lose its soul. There are thousands of instances of courage under pressure and in the face of a devastating loss.

But this column will recount just a few of them, one each from five sports, to put the losing-is-as-good-as-winning belief in perspective; for an exhaustive list cannot be drawn unless we are prepared to put in about 100,000 words.

1. Ali versus Frazier (‘Thrilla in Manila’, 1975): Although both fighters were ageing, thanks to Don King, the sport’s irrepressible impresario, the fight’s promotion was simply not like anything that has happened in the history of boxing. Ali teased his opponent, using unpardonable language. The two men went after each other as if it was their last day on earth and they needed to prove something to the world.

Towards the end (14th round) Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch could not take it anymore, for his man was near-blind in both the eyes. “Sit down son, it’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today”. Ali suddenly showed great respect for Frazier. “He could have whipped any fighter in the world except me. He is greater than I thought he was.

2. Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe (Wimbledon final, 1980): Their contrasting personalities, their contrasting styles of play as well as the somewhat contrasting culture from which they came made this one irresistible. It was the great hero versus the object of all hate and the villain.

But after McEnroe fought off seven championship points in the fourth set to take the match into the fifth set, there surely were thousands of converts in the stand. The brat from New York had won the respect of the connoisseurs. Borg won in five unforgettable sets.

3. Brazil versus Italy (1982 World Cup in Spain): Being the world’s No.1 game, it is the most popular sport in every corner of the world, and debates in football seem to have a greater emotional resonance than you can think of in sport.

The 1982 Brazil team led by the gifted, erudite revolutionary doctor of medicine, Socrates, had many talented players but their rear four was weak. This apart, they had a simple attitude problem. They wouldn’t settle for anything but a glorious victory even if the situation demanded prudence.

Seemingly unstoppable and artistically the best team since Brazil in 1970, they only needed a draw against Italy to make it to the next round. It was a rare occasion when the agony of defeat was turned into heroism despite the loss, despite Paulo Rossi’s three opportunistic goals that denied geniuses such as Socrates and Zico, two of the finest attacking midfielders their game has known.

Honourable mention: Michael Schumacher, starting 14th on the grid at Immola in Italy in 2005, and giving the eventual winner Fernando Alonso a run for his money, with his nose to the Spaniard’s tail and then finishing second.

Virat Kohli’s brave and delightful last innings 141 that almost won the Adelaide Test for India after a courageous, challenging declaration by Michael Clarke.


Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 11:26:26 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/sport-is-more-often-about-failure/article7967625.ece