The Olympics, Hope Solo, and a lesson in how not to lose

There are so many opportunities to talk about losing in the Olympics that it almost doesn't feel fair. It's like one big losing festival, only with corporate sponsors and an athlete's village where they apparently hand out condoms by the fistful. Every night presents a different worthwhile case study, and I'm just talking about prime time coverage: If I got into all the obscure sports aired on CNBC and Univision and whatever's streaming online, I would have to hire a team of interns.

But that's what makes the Olympics so riveting. It's so big, and so . . . significant. Probably the most compelling image of the Games so far is that photo of Usain Bolt cruising to a win in the 100 meter semifinals and flashing a devilish smile.

I love that picture. How could you not? It's the perfect embodiment of Bolt's singular charisma, and his ability to own a moment when the stakes are highest. I suspect that picture will hold up over time as one of the all-time greats in Olympic history. But to me, the essence of the Olympics is more this:

That’s Wilhem Belocian, the French hurdler who false started in the 400 meters and was immediately disqualified. It was Belocian’s first Olympic race, and he literally never made it past the opening gun. That’s it. Four years of training reduced to a twitchy start and a bawling heap on the ground. As Belocian got up off the track and left to exit the stadium, there was a track and field official in a blue blazer and an absurd hat whose job was to point Belocian to the correct door. When Belocian started walking one way, the official had to intervene and point him in a new direction. I honestly feared for that guy’s safety.

But that’s the Olympics. For every Usain Bolt who effortlessly glides to gold, there are dozens of Wilhem Belocians who have to reconcile how their dreams and their realities diverged so sharply. Most athletes don’t mess up so dramatically, and they’re at least allowed the satisfaction of competing. But a lot more lose than win, and then there’s usually a guy whose job it is to show them the door.

***

Another newsmaker this Olympics is Hope Solo, the U.S. women’s soccer goalie who, after the Americans lost to Sweden, said the team fell to “a bunch of cowards.” Then she said, “The best team did not win today.” It was a stupid thing to say, which appears to be a side hobby of Hope Solo’s, but it at least crystallized all the ways you’re not supposed to handle losing: Deflecting, blaming, discrediting the people who finished on top. At least Wilhem Belocian was smart enough to not say anything at all.

Contrasted against Solo was the American beach volleyball player Kerry Walsh Jennings, who, alongside partner April Ross, lost to Brazil in the semifinals on Tuesday night. It was the first loss for Jennings in the Olympics in 26 matches, and like Solo, she wasn’t much in the mood for celebrating. “It’s a terrible feeling,” she said.

Jennings went on to say that she and Ross were capable of “squashing” the Brazilians, as they had in the past.  But where she distanced herself from Hope Solo territory is what she said next.

“I say that with so much respect for them. They’re very, very good. Tonight, they rose to the occasion. I certainly did not. There’s no excuse for it. Just terrible execution. They outplayed us pretty much in every way. Not out-hustled us, not out-hearted us, not out-teamworked us. Just outplayed us.”

In her post-match remarks, Jennings detailed all the different ways she messed up against the Brazilians. Something about aces, and passing. I don’t really know volleyball that well, so it was hard for me to follow. But what was apparent is that she was blaming herself. Yes, the Americans could have won. But they didn’t, and that was on her. There was no deflection, no discrediting. It was the first time she had lost an Olympic match, which meant it was also her first chance to navigate the disappointment that countless other Olympians feel when they return home from the Games. At least in this subcategory, she performed admirably.