Though I watched it in my youth, I still vividly remember the opening montage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. To this day, I see clearly in my mind the iconic image of Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj hitting the bottom of the ramp, slipping, then pinwheeling madly into the air, arms and legs akimbo as a growing stream of debris trailed from his wreckage. Against this horrific scene intoned the stolid voice of Jim McKay, promising to deliver not only the “thrill of victory”, but “the agony of defeat”.
As highlights go, McKay could not have done any better than Bogataj’s fall to invoke the emotional suffering of losing. More than disappointment or frustration, the connection implies the spectacular devastation that only a loser can experience: hurtling down the slope in giddy expectation one moment, and the next — battered from head to toe, the world spinning wildly out of control around him.
In a way, the show’s use of the Bogataj footage underscores the risk and associated “human drama” that makes athletic spectacle compelling. Surely, a great many athletes put their bodies on the line to bring us entertainment. Still, should we as fans feel guilty? After all, the prospect of physical injury for an athlete is possible. The risk of emotional damage for a devoted fan is practically guaranteed.
Truly, to follow a team or individual player (with the possible exceptions of the New York Yankees and, until recently, Tiger Woods) with any degree of enthusiasm is to court certain disappointment. There will come a time, inevitably, where nearly every fan will find themselves backing a loser. Paradoxically, the exclusivity of championships is what drives so many off the cliffs of despair, hoping in vain to be among the rarified elect, those upon whom fortune smiles at the end of a particular season. This rarity, however, means that for the hundreds or thousands of athletes who come up short in their attempts to win it all, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of fans, who are denied by extension.
So with the odds of defeat so overwhelmingly likely, is it some virulent strain of masochism that drives fans to support their teams and favorite players, year in and year out? In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that, in the past 17 days prior to penning this column, I’ve seen two favorite teams lose national and conference championships, respectively. As an alumnus of the University of Texas and a genetically-determined Minnesota Vikings fan (inheriting the team on my father’s side), the similarities of both losses (in which my underdogs rallied late in the game, nearly besting the odds, only to fall maddeningly short in the end) has inspired a moment of self-reflection — but only after days of prolonged, incoherent angst.
The perfectly logical response to my moods of late would be, “why?” How can the fortunes of perfect strangers sway one’s feelings one way or the other? There is, ultimately, no sane answer for such a question. I realize fully that my personal ups and downs fail to register in the slightest with any of the players I’ve just feverishly backed in vain. Yet the pain remains.
Behind that, though, is perhaps a new appreciation for the term “loss”. To experience a “loss” in sports is to fail to win a game. A “loss” in any other context, however, is something far more profound. Most commonly, to suffer a loss is to lose someone, or something, beloved. The experience of loss can produce a variety of emotions depending on the circumstances, but none of them approaching anything remotely positive. Most commonly, loss produces grief, and so it is with the die-hard fan.
The losing fan is, fundamentally, bereft. With cheers begun in hope, tempered with excuses, and then colored by desperation, the losing fan really undergoes a series of losses in the process, as optimism is stripped away in layers to the bare bones of defeat. Each fan is alone in a loss, abandoned by the illusory, but no less significant, image of triumph. The fantasy of winning — talked-about, hoped-for, even dreamt-of — in a very real way is that fan’s companion, coloring their (admittedly skewed) sense of reality.
The loss, then, is more than a failure to score more points than the opponent. Rather it’s the dissolution of a fantastic companion, a nice dream obliterated. It’s cold-water reality plunging down from a great height, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
It’s this last aspect of loss — its immutability — that perhaps occasions the most grief amongst fans. As it is when loved ones die, there is simply no amount of reasoning, bargaining, or cajoling that will change the outcome and restore lost comfort. As such, a loss can be understood as a kind of existential crisis: the universe doesn’t care about you or your desires. It doesn’t matter what lucky jersey you wear, or where you sit to watch the game; your pregame rituals mean nothing. Likewise, no amount of bargaining or prayer will change the result. A loss, in essence, stamps a definitive word on a fan’s existence: NO.
As celebratory confetti rained down on my teams’ rivals, I was reminded of a scene in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. As he discusses a close-up shot of a bear’s face, Herzog the narrator dismisses Timothy Treadwell’s effusive praise for the animal, saying, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of Nature.” Facing these particularly tough losses was to gaze, like Herzog, at something equally as capable of savagery as it was indifferent to my hope.
This may border on melodrama, but for some fans it doesn’t quite say enough. Those hardest hit among us might take comfort in the clichéd notion that “losing builds character”. It’s a commonly-held assertion, but one that’s not often thought about in depth. What’s suggested here is that life is really just a series of losses, one after the other (our looks, our memory, our independence, our friends and family), and that sports help us to confront those eventual sorrows. The idea then, is that despair at seeing your teams lose is a kind of grief-in-training for the real-life defeats that are surely coming our way.
It’s a grim thought. Fortunately, though, this is not entirely the case. The cultural and emotional complexities of sports will ensure that they are always “more than a game,” but they do differ in important ways from “real life.” In the case of the grieving fan, for example, there is the certain promise of next season. Regardless of current bitterness, sports restore the promise — however faint — of “next year.” For cynics, that’s a Promethean bargain: your liver will surely grow back…just about the time the eagle regains his appetite. For the rest of us, though, this promise might help to explain why we can hurl so much of our emotional well-being into the dispassionate void on a regular basis. We know, eventually, it will come boomeranging back, some time around the preseason.
One final metaphor, perhaps, explains fans’ headlong, repeated dive into bitter disappointment. In “The Heaven of Animals”, poet James Dickey imagines a divine counterpart where prey is hunted by predator without the threat of pain or death. Unlike the fear we might feel at Herzog’s savage, uncaring grizzlies, Dickey shows how, even in preparing for the death of hope, a return to its promise — a kernel of possibility — is enough to restore all battered hearts:
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.