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The grace and greatness of losing

Story highlights

  • Tom Foreman offers three reasons we should cheer louder and longer than we do for losers
  • At the Olympic level, says Foreman, just making it there should be admired
  • Foreman: Losing teaches you how to get better; it's where winning begins

When members of the U.S. women's hockey team received their silver medals this week, they looked as if millstones were being slung around their necks.

Improbably tied by the Canadians in the final minute of the medal game, then destroyed by a sudden death goal in overtime, they were understandably upset. Ditto for the men as Canada's puck handlers hounded them all over the ice, and left the U.S. players gasping as their hopes for hockey gold skated away, defeated 1-0.

Through the long history of the Olympics, no country has won more medals than the United States. Not even close.

So one might think, amid all that bounty, the U.S. would take a loss or two in stride. But in many ways, as a culture, Americans often act as if second place -- or third -- is somehow like being tagged with a scarlet letter "L" for loser.

I like winning as much as the next soul, but treating anything except ultimate victory as passé or a cause for shame is a mistake.

Tom Foreman

First, every competitor from every nation at the Olympics has already joined extraordinarily elite company. There are about 2,850 athletes at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Compared with the world's population of more than 7 billion, that makes each not a 1-in-a-million personality, but roughly 1-in-2.5-million.

Yes, some are certainly great athletes. And while the rest may come across as adequate amateurs, they are almost all rare, elite individuals with astonishing skills -- even when they finish near the bottom of the rankings.

Breaking through? Nearly impossible. True, 294 medals will be awarded before the Games are done, but with so many nations competing, that means for each medal winner more than nine other athletes will go home with nothing but photos and memories.

The second reason we should cheer louder and longer than we do for those who finish out of the medals? Because their efforts are often no less heroic, and no less demanding than those who triumph. They may finish in the back because they struggled with injury, against personal adversity, or amid the tiny genetic imperfections that can make the difference between a champion and a contender.

In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, my friend American marathoner Meb Keflezighi wanted to win. He had taken the silver medal in Athens in 2004, becoming the first American in more than 30 years to make it to the marathon podium, and he was intent on repeating.

Through the winding streets, and over the torturous cobblestones, he ran to win so hard that he had to crawl around his hotel room the next day, unable to even stand on his battered feet. He was taken to his airplane in a wheelchair. He finished fourth, yet every runner who watched will attest that Meb's race was brave and brilliant.

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Which brings us to the third reason for everyone to feel better about all who compete: This is where greatness comes from.

As much as athletes appear to spring fully formed upon the planet during events like the Olympics, almost without exception they have toiled in anonymity for years. While the rest of us have slept in, they have risen before dawn to face the darkness and cold, bending their muscles and bones to compete. While the rest of us have commuted home to complain about our jobs, they have rushed from work to train again far into the night. And for all that, even the best have lost over and over and over again.

Losing is what teaches you how to get better. Losing shows you what you're doing wrong. Losing is where winning begins.

Maybe I have a natural affinity for the "also ran" crowd. I used to win races when I was a kid, but now even though I train thousands of miles, and run marathons and 50 mile ultra-races, age makes it unlikely I'll ever win anything again. But in the middle of the pack I still feel the great struggle of all of those around me; I see people wrestling with the conflicts of their lives, the pain of effort, the clock, and the relentless miles. This is the greatness of sport.

And I see it in all the Olympians. A medal around your neck is a spectacular thing, and those who win one ought to be lauded as the best. But we should all run to catch up to the "also rans" too, if only for a moment to pat them on the back.

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