--by Mike Murray
We Americans are first-place junkies. We are conditioned to believe that nothing less than absolute success will do. Particularly when it comes to sports, we dismiss all but the very best. Super Bowl victors, World Series champs, Olympic gold medallists – these are our heroes.
Oh sure, we spout politically correct platitudes. We pay lip service to the importance of simply taking part, of being “good sports.” But we reserve our admiration for those who become champions. We offer little more than pity to the vanquished. Especially to those who are vanquished repeatedly.
Recall the treatment of pro football’s Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, and Denver Broncos. Each of those teams experienced stretches in their histories during which they made it to the Super Bowl with remarkable regularity, only to lose on each occasion. Instead of seeing the accomplishment in reaching their sport’s ultimate contest, however, many focused on their collective failure to win it all.
The words of football’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi are routinely misused to reinforce the “reasonableness” of this mindset. He is often quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” What he actually said was, “Winning isn’t everything. But it’s the only thing worth striving for.” The difference is huge.
The first sentiment implies that only winning is acceptable. The second makes it clear that it is not victory itself but the pursuit of victory – the giving of one’s all – that is essential. Lombardi sought victory, sought it more tenaciously than most. But it was the refusal of some to do their very best, to “lay it all on the line” (rather than failure), that most offended him.
I vividly recollect the headline across the front page of one of Cleveland’s daily newspapers (we had two back then) the day after Jim Ryun’s silver-medal performance in Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic Games. The banner blared: “RYUN FAILS.”
Ryun achieved second place in the 1500 meters. He achieved it despite the high-altitude setting that favored Kenyan athletes. He achieved it despite the improper team tactics of Kip Keino and Ben Jipcho. The media here in Cleveland (and all across America) nevertheless held Ryun in contempt for failing to deliver gold to the good old US of A.
Because Ryun had been so often victorious – and because he was the possessor of several world records (the 1500 meters among them) – many expected him to win easily. Those ignorant souls failed to grasp the effect of high elevation on distance runners not born to it. In locations substantially above sea level, air is less dense; oxygen molecules are sparser per cubic meter of volume. Aerobic-event athletes not bred to the condition find themselves gasping for air.
But high altitude presents no impediment to those competing in anaerobic events. Contesting while in “oxygen debt” does no harm to performers whose efforts are expressed in brief bursts. Quite the contrary. The very condition that hinders endurance athletes (“thin air”) greatly benefits sprinters – offering as it does lowered atmospheric resistance. Hence the fabulous performances of America’s 100- 200- and 400-meter contestants in Mexico City (and of Bob Beamon, who put the world long-jump record out of reach for many years).
But for America’s distance runners, as it was for athletes native to other countries close to sea level, it was a different story. Though they trained for weeks at greater elevation in an attempt to acclimate themselves, they could not overcome generations of high-altitude adaptation. Kenya’s Kip Keino (who had previously been beaten routinely – beaten soundly – by the gifted Ryun) was able to take advantage of his mountain heritage and win Olympic gold.
The Kenyan national team did not rely solely on its altitude advantage to guarantee success, however. Its coaches instructed Ben Jipcho to assist by running interference for Keino. Jipcho’s assignment was to force Ryun to run hard in the early going in order to maintain contact. The plan was to force Ryun to expend excessive energy, to get him “winded” in the thin air.
The Kenyans’ team tactics were not only unethical; they were illegal. Just the same, no Olympic official intervened on Ryun’s behalf. But if a kind of cultural correctness permitted the atrocity (who was going to take a poor African country like Kenya and its new hero to task, after all?), Jipcho eventually tried to make amends.
Years later, he owned up to his part in the wrong that had been done to Ryun. He offered his heartfelt public apology while being interviewed for a documentary. His gesture was one that transcended race and nationality. And it was an acknowledgement that winning, in and of itself, should never be everything.
Rudyard Kipling expressed it well in his famous poem. When he wrote of filling “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” he was not speaking of victory. He was not speaking of any specific outcome. He was, instead, speaking of effort. Those who fail to grasp Kipling’s central message that “triumph and disaster” are both “imposters” that should be treated as such, miss much.
The headline writer of the Cleveland newspaper certainly did. For Ryun did not fail. True, he didn’t win gold. But he gave his all. And, despite the disadvantage of altitude and interference, he achieved silver. That amounted to success in the eyes of many. Surely it would have in Kipling’s.
First place is reserved for no one. It is not a prize awarded to the most worthy. Talent, preparation, and effort – in varying helpings – converge to deliver the victory stand’s top step to someone in every contest. Sometimes it is primarily a matter of God-given ability. Sometimes diligent training makes the critical difference. And, in still other instances, heroic effort on the day of a contest is the deciding factor among evenly matched opponents.
But no one, no matter how proficient or determined, can engineer certain victory. No one can completely command his own destiny. All each of us can do is take the talent we’re born with, nurture it as thoroughly as possible, and then deliver our best in competition.
If another has trained equally hard and is prepared to struggle every bit as valiantly – and is possessed of even a smidge more talent – victory will probably escape. But success will not.
For true success is not an absolute. It is a measure of what one achieves relative to one’s capacity. Being the best does not denote success; doing one’s best does. Success cannot be defined simply by winning, because winning involves at least one factor – natural ability – that lies beyond anyone’s control.
True success is more accurately expressed as an outgrowth of effort. And here’s the kicker: The greatest efforts are often put forth in defeat.
Many give more of themselves in losing to a superior opponent than they do in vanquishing an inferior one. In chasing someone who cannot be caught, they are stretched to the limit. While striving to beat an unbeatable foe, they draw everything out. In such cases, they hold nothing back; they leave nothing in reserve.
How ironic that success – as defined by fidelity of effort – is so often attained when victory eludes.
Everyone likes to win. Only a precious few can. I agree with Kipling: When the effort is honest – in sport and in areas of life far more important – there can be great achievement in being merely second best. Or third or fourth or fifth.
Copyright ©2006 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.