Quick! What image represented the “thrill of victory” on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Few of us probably recall the image of Brazil hoisting the World Cup trophy. The image of ski jumper Vinko Bogataj losing his balance, however, and horrifically tumbling down the ski run is one of the most iconic in our culture. As the opening to ABC’s long-running show continually reminded us, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were two sides of the same coin.
Any player, coach, or even fan can relate to this phenomenon. It is one of the chief reasons we are drawn to these competitions, both as participants and spectators. There’s a gamble to it all. I invest my time, my energy, my body, my money, and especially my heart in the pursuit of victory. It is that elation in ultimate victory, for those of us who have experienced it, that produces a moment that lasts a lifetime and cannot be duplicated in any other venue: the exhilarating rush of joy as hard work, commitment, and years of preparation come together to their fruition. There’s no other feeling like it.
The hard truth, however, is that this moment of victory is rare. This weekend, as the NCAA tournament culminates in the Final Four, only one team will walk away with the “thrill of victory.” The rest, and their 64 compatriots who have already been eliminated, will know what Vinko Bogataj knew: sadness, frustration, anger. All of the aforementioned investments have resulted in loss. Instead of jubilation, there are tears.
So why do we do it? The odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us. The likelihood of ever winning the ultimate prize is slim. The probability of sitting with our face in our hands at the end of the competition is great. It seems like a fool’s bet. I submit, however, that it’s not ultimately about the outcomes, but rather the “thrill of the chase.”
I’ve had the good fortune, as a coach and a player, to win some championships, although never an “ultimate” prize like a state title. As a fan, I’ve exulted as my teams have brought home the hardware. But I’ve also sat in disbelief as they unexpectedly lost on the path to what I was sure was a title. Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative outcomes, I keep coming back. It’s because of the “chase.”
My favorite team of all time, the 1992 Kentucky basketball squad, played in my favorite game of all time, their classic double overtime loss to a heavily favored Duke team. You might be wondering how I can count that moment of defeat as an all time favorite. Immediately afterward, I most certainly didn’t. To have what appeared to be a monumental upset victory and berth in the Final Four snatched away in a matter of seconds by an improbable full court heave and desperate shot was soul-crushing. I wasn’t right for weeks after the event.
But when I recount that game, when it’s replayed on TV, the ebb and flow of the game, that roller coaster ride of emotion it took me on, all comes back. That’s what is great about sports. It’s the possibility, even the likelihood of defeat, that makes the elation of victory so special. For some, like the Cubs, it’s a Sysyphusian pursuit that can be elusive. Yet we endure it in pursuit of that ultimate prize, and value the experiences along the way.
It was Rudyard Kipling, in his poem, “If” who said it best: Triumph and disaster are merely “imposters.” If we are to be successful in life, we must treat the two exactly the same. Neither the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat are lasting. What does last is the thrill of the chase and the experiences gained along the way.