The more we lose, the sweeter our victories
Fundamentally, we follow sport in pursuit of joy: the excitement of the contest, the awe of achievement, the triumph of victory. No one forces us to be sports fans. We are so because we enjoy it. But part of the attraction is drama. And with drama comes pain.
Two weekends ago I was on the brink of a feeling not experienced by an Australian golf fan for six years: we were about to win a major. As Adam Scott carved up the field over three rounds of the British Open I reveled in the delicious anticipation of what was about to ensue in the early hours of Monday morning.
Setting my alarm for 1.15am, I got up to watch the back nine and shepherd our boy home. I picked up Adam Scott at the turn and as others were faltering he was holding his nerve and his line. Before long he had a five shot break on the rest of the field. Sensing that Scotty didn’t need my help, I set the alarm for 2.45am just in time for the triumphal march, and promptly went back to sleep.
Waking again I found Adam Scott on the 16th where he’d just had a bogey on the previous hole. But he had shots to burn and his drive on 16 was straight down the middle.
And then it happened.
In the space of about a minute, Scott missed a two foot putt while Ernie Els hit his approach shot on 18 to about ten feet. His lead was about to be cut to just one and the impending train wreck was very suddenly and very horribly, very inevitable.
Over the next 40 minutes Adam Scott’s lifetime achievement, Australia’s best hope for a major in six years, and my weekend of excited expectation went up in smoke. Two weeks later I am far from having gotten over it.
I can only imagine what it would have been like to have been a French golf fan, anticipating your first ever major victory and watching Jean van de Velde blow a three shot lead on the very last hole of the 1999 British Open. The scene of Van de Velde taking off his shoes and rolling up his pants so that he could wade into the water and attempt to hit his shot out of a creek was more appalling than the most epic of Greek tragedies. His life was being defined in a few brief moments by that which he did not achieve.
Ironically, his failure has made him far more famous than if he’d won. In fact no-one can remember who actually did win that British Open.
I had a round of golf with Van de Velde last year. Not surprisingly he has become a philosopher. Thankfully he has a well developed sense of humour.
My worst moment as a sports fan came in the 2008 AFL Grand Final. Having put together the best home and away season since 1929, Geelong came into the Grand Final having only lost one game. During Grand Final week I had already banked the Premiership, unfurled the Flag, and mentally engraved our name on the cup. Any other result would be a travesty.
What unfolded in the game itself was a medieval nightmare. In footballing justice terms this was nothing short of an atrocity. To be sure, Hawthorn’s victory was hollow, but I remained in denial about our defeat for years. I still wonder whether there isn’t some way to change the AFL’s historical record.
Over the last few days, as we have all set our alarms to the wee hours, our experiences of the Olympics have been more characterised by pain than joy. The Men’s 100m Relay team misfired. In the individual event James Magnussen missed his deserved place in Australian sporting lore by a finger touch. The injuries which have plagued Stephanie Rice have taken their toll.
Emily Seebohm cried for us all.
Suddenly the currency of Olympic gold medals, which have rained upon us in recent games, has been re-valued to that rarest of feats, that most elusive of sporting prizes which is handed out by less than a handful every four years.
Yet it is precisely this increasing value of the currency which is the point of sports fan pain. Part of why Kieren Perkins’ swim in the 1500m at Atlanta is one of the great moments in Australian sport is that it came off the back of a swim meet, where up to that point, we’d only won a single gold medal. In the midst of a drought, his triumph was truly glorious.
For it is failure which highlights success. It is the pain which gives us the joy.
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