Sunday, February 28, 2010

Congratulations, you ALMOST Won. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

It's been 16 years now since the Buffalo Bills set themselves, in many people's minds, as not one of the best, but one of the worst teams ever in the history of sports.

The Bills did that, as you'll recall, by making it to, and then losing in, four consecutive Super Bowls. For four years running, the Buffalo Bills were silver medalists in the NFL, and as a result, they are enshrined in people's memories as one of the biggest losers, as a laughing stock.

If only the Bills had done that today -- or if they'd played, as a team, in some sport or activity other than football, the Bills might have received the kind of glory and acclaim our society now heaps on people who, in Jerry Seinfeld's words, almost won.

Jerry Seinfeld, in his act, used to do a bit on the Silver Medal winner. It went like this:

"No one lost ahead of you." That's funny. And it's also a lone voice, nowadays, as in almost every sport or activity or awards ceremony, almost winning, losing ahead of everybody else, is increasingly rewarded and increasingly honored.

I first noticed this the other day when I realized, on the morning news shows, that the reporters were saying that the United States was ahead in the "medal count" and "winning" the Olympics... even though the U.S. hadn't won more golds than anyone. The official Vancouver 2010 page -- where that medal count links to -- has as its default the U.S. in first place, even though the U.S. trails Canada in gold medals by 3 (as of this morning) and trails Germany by one (as of this morning).

But the U.S. has more bronze and more silver than any other country. We have more people who lost ahead of everybody else, and so we're winning.

In a way.

The Olympics are all about celebrating the elevation of almost winning. Not just by saying countries win the Olympics by not losing more than anyone else didn't lose, but by equating almost winning with winning whenever they can. Consider this headline: "Michael Phelps Watches Apolo Anton Ohno Set Olympic Record." Without reading the story, that really, really, conjures up an image for me, because I watched as Phelps won his seventh and eighth gold medals in Beijing, and watching swimming is something I've never done; watching the Olympics is something I rarely do. But a chance to see someone win more gold medals than anyone else was a chance I couldn't pass up (especially when the races only lasted a minute or so.)

So reading that headline, you'd think "This kid, Apolo [who spells his name wrong] must have won, what, 9 Gold Medals?"

But you'd be wrong (except about the name-spelling part.) Apolo Anton Ohno set not an Olympic record for most golds at an Olympics, or something like that. Instead, he set a record for "Most Medals Won At The Winter Olympics." Of those medals, at least two are silver, and one's a bronze, and he was disqualified from one race.

"Record-setting?" I'm not sure. I'm not trying to water down Ohno's accomplishment unduly -- since surely placing second or third in the entire world is an achievement in and of itself and one worthy of celebration, but should be that achievement be unduly inflated? Are some silvers and bronzes equal to six golds (Phelps' totals in Athens) or 8 golds ( Phelps' totals in Beijing)? The headline, and the breathless coverage, would have you think that Ohno's record was equal to Phelps' accomplishment. But it wasn't.

Instead, Ohno's "record," helps demonstrate that the celebration of almost-winning, is what society has (d)evolved to -- life in a society where we are desperate to reach the top and impatient that the top holds only one person at a time. Have years of longing for success (and celebrating "success" before it's achieved, a la the "Dan and Dan" almost-Olympic competition of years ago, and the almost-coronation of Peyton Manning as the almost-greatest Quarterback of all time this year did...) set up a society where we now want to redefine what success and winning are?

Almost-winning is becoming a commonly-accepted token of esteem. While Academy awards are hard to win, almost winning winning one is not quite as hard, and almost winning the Academy Award sets one up for greater success almost the way winning does: "Academy Award Nominee" is featured prominently on movie advertisements for almost any film that's released, and it's a rare film these days that can't boast at least one "Academy Award nomination" link to help boost its box office profile. But "nominee" hides the truth: "Academy Award LOSER!" would be equally as accurate: Put that on a DVD case and see what the sales are.

The Academy Award Nominee For Best Picture label is so powerful, and so compelling, that this year the Academy decided to create more losers... excuse me, almost winners... than ever before, expanding the field from 5 to 10 pictures. Next year, 9 losing films will boast that they almost won when they are released on DVD, and 9 directors will demand more money for not winning the Best Picture.

Almost winning the presidential election in 2000 was great for Al Gore -- better, even, than if he'd won. Had he won, he'd have been president through 9/11 and possibly the Second Great Depression. But he didn't win, and so he became an elder statesman of sorts, free to travel the country and the world and make pronouncements and speeches without having to actually worry about results and votes, and his profile today is better than ever. (Oh, and he's also estimated to be worth more than $100 million. That figure is almost double what the Clintons were worth that year -- so Al Gore, their second-banana runner up almost winner, is now twice as successful as they are.)

On American Idol, almost winning is better than winning. Clay Aiken has been on Broadway and released an album. David Archuleta and Adam Lambert generate more publicity than the people who beat them -- and I bet you can't name the people who beat them.

(The power of almost winning has been recognized, but not celebrated, for a long time: In Catch-22, the old Italian man lectures the Americans on the folly of winning a war; he's happy that Italy, which got itself into trouble when it won wars, was then losing World War II, because it meant Italy would be doing just fine in the future.)

Steve Stricker made headlines around the world earlier this month when he hit... number two in the World Golf Rankings. Granted, golf desperately needed something besides Whoregate to focus on, but still.

It's Darwinism on its head. The top, the ultimate height of success, is very difficult to reach and there's not much room up there. There can only be one Tom Cruise, only one Bob Costas, only one Michael Jordan, only one Brett Favre, and becoming that person is exceedingly difficult. So instead of trying to climb up the mountain and displace the current champion gold-medal winner who's standing there, we create a podium, with ledges just below the top. We widen the top of the mountain and stand head-to-shoulder with the winne and declare ourselves winners, of a sort, and invent new records and ways of counting to replace the old, exclusionary records and ways of counting.

The celebration of almost-winning hasn't spread to all of society, not yet. You don't see books emblazoned with Fifteen Weeks at Number Two on the Best Seller Lists. I haven't yet seen an award for, and speech by, the person with the second best grades at a graduation. And, of course, in the world of sports, there are still those true sports that refused to cave into the trend: Baseball and football.

Lose in the championship in football, or baseball -- or, worse yet, lose in the run-up to the championship, and you're toast. There is no celebration of almost-winning in the NFL. The Vikings and the Bills face daily reminders of the number of Super Bowls they lost. No sports caster mentions John Elway without mentioning how many times he came up short in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning's losses in his big games count against him far more than the fact that he made it there in the first place.

In baseball, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron have already been eclipsed and set to the wayside -- even though their records were broken by cheaters. Remember the Florida Marlins? Maybe you do, a little, because they almost won the World Series not long ago, but the odds are you remember the Phillies, who beat them, better -- and that you remember that the Yankees beat the Phillies, then. The Red Sox got no respect until they finally won a Series; the Cubs won't get any until they do.

In baseball, and football, almost alone among sports, it's not enough just to get there. It's not enough to almost win. Hopefully, they'll remain a bastion of winning, and we won't, someday, see an award ceremony at the Superbowl where the winning coach stands on one podium, and the almost-winning coach stands on another, and each gets a trophy.

There's nothing wrong with finishing second, or third, especially not when you're second, or third, in the entire world. But it's not winning, and sometimes, just being nominated isn't good enough. Sports is an area where that's supposed to be recognized. It's a shame that in the one area of the world where the difference between winning and losing ought to be black and white, the colors are getting muddled up, with silver and bronze being almost indistinguishable from gold.

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