Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The grace and greatness of losing

By Tom Foreman, CNN
February 23, 2014 -- Updated 1400 GMT (2200 HKT)
Canada forward Jonathan Toews fights for the puck in the second period of the gold medal men's hockey game against Sweden on Sunday, February 23. As world-class athletes <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/08/worldsport/gallery/visions-of-sochi/index.html'>compete in the Winter Olympics</a>, we expect to see elegant and thrilling performances. But some finishes, in triumph, defeat or just plain exhaustion, often involve landing hard on a cold, wet surface. Here, we take a lighter look at those giving their all for a chance at the gold. | <i>More photos:</i> <i><a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/08/worldsport/gallery/visions-of-sochi/index.html'>Visions of Sochi</a></i> Canada forward Jonathan Toews fights for the puck in the second period of the gold medal men's hockey game against Sweden on Sunday, February 23. As world-class athletes compete in the Winter Olympics, we expect to see elegant and thrilling performances. But some finishes, in triumph, defeat or just plain exhaustion, often involve landing hard on a cold, wet surface. Here, we take a lighter look at those giving their all for a chance at the gold. | More photos: Visions of Sochi
HIDE CAPTION
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
Falling down in Sochi
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
178
179
180
181
182
183
184
185
186
187
188
189
190
191
192
193
194
195
196
197
198
199
200
201
202
203
204
205
206
207
208
209
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom Foreman offers three reasons we should cheer louder and longer than we do for losers
  • At the Olympic level, says Foreman, just making it there should be admired
  • Foreman: Losing teaches you how to get better; it's where winning begins

Editor's note: Tom Foreman is an Emmy award-winning reporter and anchor for CNN, based in Washington. He is also an ultramarathoner.

(CNN) -- When members of the U.S. women's hockey team received their silver medals this week, they looked as if millstones were being slung around their necks.

Improbably tied by the Canadians in the final minute of the medal game, then destroyed by a sudden death goal in overtime, they were understandably upset. Ditto for the men as Canada's puck handlers hounded them all over the ice, and left the U.S. players gasping as their hopes for hockey gold skated away, defeated 1-0.

Through the long history of the Olympics, no country has won more medals than the United States. Not even close.

So one might think, amid all that bounty, the U.S. would take a loss or two in stride. But in many ways, as a culture, Americans often act as if second place -- or third -- is somehow like being tagged with a scarlet letter "L" for loser.

Tom Foreman
Tom Foreman

I like winning as much as the next soul, but treating anything except ultimate victory as passé or a cause for shame is a mistake.

First, every competitor from every nation at the Olympics has already joined extraordinarily elite company. There are about 2,850 athletes at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Compared with the world's population of more than 7 billion, that makes each not a 1-in-a-million personality, but roughly 1-in-2.5-million.

Yes, some are certainly great athletes. And while the rest may come across as adequate amateurs, they are almost all rare, elite individuals with astonishing skills -- even when they finish near the bottom of the rankings.

Breaking through? Nearly impossible. True, 294 medals will be awarded before the Games are done, but with so many nations competing, that means for each medal winner more than nine other athletes will go home with nothing but photos and memories.

The second reason we should cheer louder and longer than we do for those who finish out of the medals? Because their efforts are often no less heroic, and no less demanding than those who triumph. They may finish in the back because they struggled with injury, against personal adversity, or amid the tiny genetic imperfections that can make the difference between a champion and a contender.

In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, my friend American marathoner Meb Keflezighi wanted to win. He had taken the silver medal in Athens in 2004, becoming the first American in more than 30 years to make it to the marathon podium, and he was intent on repeating.

Will Obama show Canada's PM some love?
Winner of USA vs. Canada hockey game ...
Sochi Olympics: 5 moments to remember

Through the winding streets, and over the torturous cobblestones, he ran to win so hard that he had to crawl around his hotel room the next day, unable to even stand on his battered feet. He was taken to his airplane in a wheelchair. He finished fourth, yet every runner who watched will attest that Meb's race was brave and brilliant.

Which brings us to the third reason for everyone to feel better about all who compete: This is where greatness comes from.

As much as athletes appear to spring fully formed upon the planet during events like the Olympics, almost without exception they have toiled in anonymity for years. While the rest of us have slept in, they have risen before dawn to face the darkness and cold, bending their muscles and bones to compete. While the rest of us have commuted home to complain about our jobs, they have rushed from work to train again far into the night. And for all that, even the best have lost over and over and over again.

Losing is what teaches you how to get better. Losing shows you what you're doing wrong. Losing is where winning begins.

Maybe I have a natural affinity for the "also ran" crowd. I used to win races when I was a kid, but now even though I train thousands of miles, and run marathons and 50 mile ultra-races, age makes it unlikely I'll ever win anything again. But in the middle of the pack I still feel the great struggle of all of those around me; I see people wrestling with the conflicts of their lives, the pain of effort, the clock, and the relentless miles. This is the greatness of sport.

And I see it in all the Olympians. A medal around your neck is a spectacular thing, and those who win one ought to be lauded as the best. But we should all run to catch up to the "also rans" too, if only for a moment to pat them on the back.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tom Foreman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT