If one performs poorly at the Olympics, can we only say “he did his best”? And if one thinks otherwise, is it “negative and hurtful”?
By Ray Zhang
Losing is not winning. It just isn’t, no matter how we frame it. I read with amusement the reactions to Olympic gold hopeful Joseph Schooling’s disappointing failure at the pool in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre yesterday—the insistence that he did his best. And with dismay, those by trolls, who not only thought otherwise, but also predicted his fate when Mr Schooling was not the flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Games. I do not condone nastiness (invectives are themselves defeatist), whether following a win or failure, or, as it is popular these days, a pull-out, but I am inclined to call a defeat exactly that. Our swimming superstar did not only fail to qualify for the semi-finals, he came in last in the heat. If he had been placed within the top three, or, okay, five, he might have done his best, but many of us saw what happened in the pool at 6.15 (plus) yesterday evening: Mr Schooling was the final swimmer to touch the wall at the end of the pool with both hands. We could not un-see that. Sorry, to me, that result was coming in at the bottom. How else could you put it?
Like many people, including our sports journalists, I did not think he was going to bring back another gold. Was I being “negative”? Similarly, I did not think he would go as far as to take to the pool a second time after the heat. Was that “hurtful”? No, I did not look down on Mr Schooling, but I did take in his performance since that victory at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. Most strikingly, how he appeared at the 2019 SEA Games: find your own substitute for the F-word (no ___-shaming intended here). The truth is, even having lost some of that weight gained, Mr Schooling did not look to be in top shape, compared to his fellow competitors (when they stand in a row as they did, it was hard not to compare or notice). But physical shape alone isn’t a determiner of swimming excellence. The burning desire to want to stay on top is. By his own admission, the 26-year-old “did not want to get into the pool and just wanted to have fun”, as he told The Sunday Times back in February last year. And timing too. In Tokyo, our swimming pride clocked in three seconds short of his Olympic record of 50.39s, while Caeleb Dressel would go on to win the 100m butterfly final at 49.45s that, to global news headlines, “…shatters world record”. Mr Schooling did his best? As I remember it, his best was on 12 August 2016 in Rio 2016.
To be certain, there are many variables to consider during a competition and the lead-up to it. Negatives could conspire on the very day of the meet against any participant. But uninspiring performance at the Olympics (or even local competitions) should not just be padded by euphemistic deflections. A positive spin is just that: a spin. It is not an encouragement. Telling someone that he has done his best even when he may not have (only he knows), could be limiting his potential. He has to be told to do better. If at Tokyo 2020, what Joseph Schooling did was his best, would that not spell the end of his swimming career? At any competition, there are winners and there are those who are not, just as there are those who have succeeded and those who have failed. To learn from a failure, I’m afraid we must first be willing to call it that.
Updated (31 July 2021, 13:00) to show the winner of the swimming men’s 100m butterfly final
Illustration: Just So