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When athletes fall: A summer of defeat

Examining the complicated, revealing nature of defeatat once more personal, and more telling than victory

Croatia’s Luka Modric reacts at the end of the 2018 Fifa World Cup final. Photo: AFP
Croatia’s Luka Modric reacts at the end of the 2018 Fifa World Cup final. Photo: AFP

As summer recedes, it leaves in its wake the smell of defeat. We remember victory, but almost everyone loses. Thirty-one of 32 World Cup football teams. One-hundred-and-twenty-seven women of 128 at Wimbledon. Armies of the lost.

Self-esteem is bruised, ego dented. Bags kicked, grass spat on. Heads under towels, on their knees. Drained, dazed. For a while a camera lingers on them, an unblinking voyeur peering at loss, and then it moves on. They’re on their own, a forlorn statistic.

As a writer I like defeat because it’s complicated and revealing. It’s more naked than victory, more telling, more personal, more prickly. How much sport matters, you see clearest in loss.

No one does “suck it up", like athletes. They take pain and put it somewhere. They nail down rage to where you can’t see it. They do it because they’re practised at it, because this is life, because they have to rise again, because they know we’re taping and judging every reaction. Broken rackets are still news.

There are versions of defeat. Grades. Degrees. Defeat by a little, by a distance, by a choke, by bad luck. At the 1988 year-end Masters, in the fifth set tiebreaker, the final point is a 37-shot rally which ends with a Boris Becker backhand hitting the net cord and the ball falling into Ivan Lendl’s court.

Said Lendl: “I remember saying to myself, ‘Please, don’t do that!’ But it did."

Defeat is mean, like coming fourth at a Games. The almost people. Nearly important. Bordering on relevant.

Tracey Moffatt, the Australian artist, did an exhibition called Fourth, comprising images from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Most, she wrote, were of the “acute moment when the athlete has just finished their final, turning or looking to see the outcome, and finding out the result that they came fourth! Most of the time the expression is expressionless, it’s a set look, which crosses the human face. It’s an awful, beautiful, knowing mask, which says ‘Oh shit!’"

Abhinav Bindra knows this fourth place and on the plane back from Rio, short of a medal by .1 of a point, “what ifs" ricochet around his brain like shrapnel. You can rewind a day, you can’t replay it. Still, maybe defeat by nothing is better than lasting just two freaky, unjust seconds.

At the 1996 Olympics in the 1,000m time-trial, where cyclists race alone, the world champion is Shane Kelly and his left foot slips out of the straps at the start and he’s done. As he told The New York Times: “By the time I got my foot back in, one second, two seconds had passed. Too much time was gone. It’s an Olympic dream shattered. Four years are gone."

The defeated have no set look. Resigned, edgy, weary or faces of shining defiance. They sit down in press conferences and twist open bottles and then look up:

Go on then, ask me how I feel.

Of course they don’t always know, not so fast, because so far they’ve only yelled in dressing rooms or smashed a locker or wept with a parent or sat on the floor in a deflated silence. The loneliest people in an arena.

Losing is obsessed over and sometimes shrugged off. Roger Federer sometimes flicks it off like lint from a fancy jacket that Anna Wintour gave him. After falling to Kevin Anderson in Wimbledon, he says: “Might take me a while (to get over it). Might take me half an hour."

Defeat elicits lovely quotes from raging men, like Jimmy Connors saying about Bjorn Borg, “I’ll chase the son of a bitch to the ends of the earth." Defeat, on a weighing scale, is heavier than victory, or as Billy Beane’s character in Moneyball, borrowing a philosophy from real-life athletes, says: “I hate losing. I hate it. I hate losing more than I even wanna win."

Losing turns fans into uncomfortable yogis, for they sit unmoving on sofas, unable to change an awkward position because that’s the one they were sitting in when Rafael Nadal won his last four points and to change it is to beckon defeat. Everyone knows that. But losing can warp watchers, for we will inflate defeat, exaggerate it, and when Lionel Messi has a few average Cup matches, 10 years of trophies, moves, goals, magic are scrubbed away. Evidently he was never that good.

Defeat is necessary, it makes winning fun, it allows us to give our children grave lectures about character, it leads to silent and spectacular self-abuse while sitting in puddles of sweat, it gives birth to experts, makes us appreciate commitment, teaches us to shake hands even as we swallow bile and helps produce manly excuses. “The balls were too bouncy," said football manager Kenny Dalglish once. Of course.

But defeat has become too grim, partly because we only want to win. The result sometimes obscures the contest. We sack football managers for nothing and make own-goal luckless fellows like Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz apologize to their nations. But it wasn’t a sin, only sport.

Defeat is essential to any relationship with a team, it is about hanging in there, staying together, bitching, sulking, trying. Everyone wants to attach themselves to the winning team, to France and Barcelona, but I have a friend whose heart belongs to Blackburn Rovers and her journey through defeat and wait for victory is wilder, more raw, more real.

In his classic book, The Boys Of Summer, Roger Kahn writes: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thoughts, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it."

Losing is my memory of this summer. The stillness of players after a match of motion. Footballers kneeling. On their haunches. Standing with hands on hips. Sucking in oxygen, looking into nothingness. Defeat empties the athlete. Then they try again.

For all that we write about a spoilt, indulged generation—not always untrue—they did well this summer. Shook hands, embraced, comforted on the football field. Hugged, patted chests, tweeted respectfully at Wimbledon. Extraordinary players fell but stayed to sign for the ordinary fan. In a summer lost, it was a last victorious moment.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. Read his previous columns at

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