The Blog

The Armchair Spectator: The Brutality of the Games

The Olympic Games can be a cruel mistress at times. For every winner, for every athlete who stands on the podium, medal around neck, listening to the roar of the crowd and the strains of their National Anthem, there are a handful of... non-winners, shall we say. Losers seems like too strong a word.
AP

The Olympic Games can be a cruel mistress at times. For every winner, for every athlete who stands on the podium, medal around neck, listening to the roar of the crowd and the strains of their National Anthem, there are a handful of... non-winners, shall we say. Losers seems like too strong a word.

On Tuesday Michael Phelps bagged his 19th Olympic medal and became the greatest Olympian in history, literally leaving his competitors in his wake. Those who don't win are often interviewed by a commiserating journalist; and, no matter what the sport is, their responses cross similar terrain: magnanimous in defeat, paying tribute to the winner, and often vowing to return.

Behind closed doors, however, one can imagine that their true feelings emerge: anger, upset, bitterness, and any other synonyms you might want to add to the mix. They cannot be blamed for this: the event in which they just lost was the pinnacle of years of hard work, early mornings, torn muscles, dreams of clutching a medal. Those hopes are now dashed, the moment gone, never to be recovered. It is akin to climbing a mountain and reaching the summit only to find yourself at the foot of another mountain. It's a long, hard slog for the next four years: four years of work for just a few minutes of competition.

You can forgive an athlete, then, if their emotions show through in front of the cameras. Euan Burton, the 33 year-old Scottish judoka, broke down in tears in his post-contest interview as realisation dawned that he would never achieve an Olympic medal.

"I feel like I've let myself down a bit," he said. "I feel like I've let my coaches down...I feel like I've let my mum and dad and brother down. I've been working for this for over a quarter of a century, and I'm pretty sure you won't see me in Rio. So no, there's no positives to be taken from [defeat]."

Some athletes react with a little less dignity in the fact of seemed injustice. Shin Lam, the South Korean fencer, staged a sit-in for over an hour after losing to Germany's Britta Heidemann in the dying seconds of the semi-final, after the points had been reset. Clearly distraught, and with her coach flailing at the judges, she only left the floor after the threat of a black card, subsequently emerging for her bronze medal match, which she lost to China's Yujie Sun. But again, as a spectator you can understand her frustration and distress. She awoke this morning knowing that she had the chance to win a medal: and now it's all just a memory.

For some, years of hard work culminates in defeat, and days of ruminating over 'what ifs'. For others, one mistake or ruling by a judge can negate hundreds of hours of training. It all boils down to one moment, and in that moment you either win or lose. It's how the athlete deal with it that defines them as an Olympian.