We're all familiar with phrases like "winning isn't everything" and "it's not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game." Well you know what, those are bullshit.
Would Kevin Garnett be any worse of a basketball player if he didn't win an NBA Championship? Certainly not, but we would asterisk his name in comments like "Kevin Garnett, perhaps the best player to never have won a championship" had he stayed in Minnesota.
What the unenlightened fail to understand that, at the highest level of sport, it is only about winning. Try telling the silver medallist at the Olympics that they'll "get 'em next time." There may never be a next time for them.
I understand that accomplishments, awards and money are things we can't take with us when we die, but they're certainly going to have an impact on how we live. Bill Buckner had to move to the middle of the country and become a recluse because of his blooper in the 1986 World Series (not that I was complaining about that one).
Winning is important to all of us. It is proof we're the best. I have trained with some of the most competitive people and I can say firsthand that winning something, no matter how big or small, is all they are concerned with. Brian Godsey is one of these people. Whether it was proving he had run the slowest on a particular course (yes, the slowest) or exploding over a game of MarioKart, he wants to beat you. OJ is another one of these people. He will kill himself to beat you at something. A lot of times he doesn't care if he doesn't win, just as long as you don't win. These two people have also won their fair share of races in their time, and once you know that feeling, it's hard to accept anything else.
Some people call it drive, some call it desire, yet others call it that killer instinct. I think it's just human nature, and the lack of these things is what has made the world into the place it is today. It's very hard to get to the top; it's even harder to stay there. I've only won two races (actually the same race, twice) - the Terp Trot 5k. This is my race. If there is a way that I can compete at it every year, it will always be my goal to win.
Most people are satisfied with just finishing something, and I'll never take that away from them. For them, that is their personal win. While there can only be one winner at any given event, others can also win.
Age-graded wins don't count, at least definitely not yet. In college I remember after some races Tri-guy Tommy, my training partner, would come back and tell me he "won." Then I would look up results and say "no, you got 4th." "Well I won my age group." Doesn't count. It's designed to make you feel better about yourself.
I got to thinking about winning this week as I consider the task ahead for America in their quest to "win" the Olympics. How does one measure success at the Olympics? Purely by medal count? Types of medals won? Percentage of gold medals to overall medals? Is their some kind of scale based on available resources and size of the country? For instance, we have more people in the Olympics than some countries have in their population, surely they can't be expected to win as many as we do.
Then I thought about Michael Phelps. He is in a position to do something no human being has ever done - win 9 gold medals in one Olympics. This is absurd. The fact he can is reason enough for him to do it. Most people say he could win more than that if the swimming events were spread over more days. He is so much better than everyone else at so many events it's impossible to fathom. But with all that potential comes so much pressure. I don't know how he deals with it. See while most of America is a bunch of lazy assholes, they do judge success by one thing: did you win gold? If you say yes, it's "oh okay, that's good." If you say no, I won silver, it's "oh...well, good job. Maybe next time." The unenlightened can't comprehend or appreciate because they don't understand what it takes to get there.
Even I would say "wow, silver is great, bronze is great, 4th place is great!" but if I am good enough to get to the Olympics, I'm only satisfied with gold.
Ultimately I suppose it comes down to knowing your audience. One of the most degrading things you can say to an elite athlete is "well at least you finished." Our college coach used that as his motivational speech once: "just finish." Thanks, coach. After Eagleman people were saying how much respect they had for me just because I had finished. Great, I finished, in a terrible time and nearly killed myself. When we were in Boston a few years ago for Andy's marathon, a Bostoner (Bostonite?) on the train said one of the most intelligent things I've ever heard a non-athlete say to an athlete. "How was this time compared to your goal?" That's a proper question that should never get you in trouble.
I realize that winning is never easy, and that's the point, you've got to earn it. I'd like to get a W in a multisport event this season, but if it doesn't happen I'll keep working for it. Desire, drive and killer instinct. Humans got to where we are for a reason, it's up to some of us to keep that legacy going.
And I'd wish Michael Phelps luck, but he doesn't need luck. Go Baltimore!