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In the sporting pressure cooker
AMID all the excitement of the Olympic torch passing through our area earlier this week, the photo on the right kept coming to my mind.
It shows a totally drained athlete on the verge of tears sitting on the track after running in an Olympic final. A second athlete is bending solicitously over her.
But this is not a photo of a loser. The exhausted athlete is Cathy Freeman, immediately after she won Australia’s only athletics gold in the Sydney Olympics. Instead of elation, she was just very, very relieved the event was over and she hadn’t lost. It was some time before she was able to celebrate being the Olympic 400m champion.
Few athletes ever have to carry the pressure that almost crushed Cathy Freeman, bearing the home nation’s athletic golden hopes alone after lighting the Olympic torch.
But for every winner, by definition, there has to be at least one loser. For every medallist beaming from ear to ear there will be many more competitors crying their hearts out back in the changing room. And for every sportsman or woman proudly wearing their national uniform in the opening ceremony, there will be many more watching jealously or angrily turning the television off. There is more failure than success in sport.
There is nothing wrong in exhorting a sportsman or team to excel themselves. A sense of national pride can spur people on to superhuman efforts – such as Tino Best, pictured, scoring 95 from the number 11 position for the West Indies, and oh, if only he could have made the century. No, I’m not a closet West Indian – I support England at cricket – but a superb performance is superb regardless of who performs it.
We do need to make sure our support isn’t counter-productive and make the sportsman or woman so terrified of failure they make mistakes. Would Tim Henman have won Wimbledon if there had been other British male winners since 1936 to take the pressure of expectation off his shoulders? In our understandable desire to have a British winner of the tennis British Open are we making it virtually impossible for a British man to win it?
The English football team was probably relieved that no one was expecting it to win the European Championships this time round.
The hysterical adulation that usually surrounds the players when they set off for a major tournament inevitably ends in tears, over-the-top recriminations and the manager, the goalkeeper or the forward who misses the final penalty being lynched. England fail to win simply because they aren’t the best team around and no amount of hype can change that.
Contrast the English attitude with that of the Irish, who sang the roof off Gdansk stadium at the end of their 4-0 drubbing by the Spanish last week. At first I thought it was the winners singing.
But Irish support is not a fairweather friend and they can treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, the same.
As the expectation builds for the Olympics, not to mention Wimbledon, which starts on Monday, let us start by supporting those who won’t be going to the Olympics. It’s not the end of the world for them, though it probably feels like it. There is a future beyond Stratford.
Let us cheer ourselves hoarse to encourage our sportsmen and women because our cheers may be the final push they need to get them over that finishing line first – or win that final on Centre Court.
But let us also be on hand for all those also-rans whose names will be forgotten after the event. Let us reassure them as long as they give their best, that’s enough. It’s all right to lose. Just.