Illustration by J.O. Applegate.
This story first appeared in The Classical Magazine Issue 9: Losing.
There's a story about a young woman. She's a Taekwondo fighter from a country where hardly anyone cares about the sport, and she believed that she could be the best in the world at it.
And so she works hard, wins fights, loses fights, and goes on to win a medal at the Olympics against the odds and despite judges who try to deny her a victory that was plain for anyone to see. Then, just as she is training for a World Championship that she's sure she can win, her parents are struck with cancer, one and then the other.
They won't allow her to stop or give up. They want her to keep fighting to win, just as she wants them to keep fighting to stay alive. She says goodbye to them, and travels to the tournament. Fired by adversity, she tears through opponent after opponent until she reaches the final.
Because this is a story, and because all stories trade in symbols, the contest—a woman literally fighting for her parents even while her parents metaphorically fight cancer—goes to sudden death.
But whoever is writing this script is milking it for drama, and even after sudden death, the scores are level. And the way Taekwondo is judged means that victory goes to whoever was most aggressive in the sudden death round. The idea is to reward fighters who aren't defensive, who aren't so afraid of losing than they won't try to win.
In this story, then, the winner is the one that wanted it more, the one bold enough to stake everything she cares about on victory and risk it all. And so the World Championship is hers. Bravery and determination are rewarded; she goes home to her parents and they celebrate together. The end.
The woman's name is Sarah Stevenson, and the story is true. But this isn't that story.
This story begins on July 27, 2012, at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Stevenson has been chosen to read the Olympic Oath on behalf of competitors, a pledge to uphold "the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams." In choosing her, it's hard not to see the organizing committee making a point to their predecessors in Beijing.
There, Stevenson had become the first Briton to win an Olympic medal in Taekwondo. This was a major accomplishment, but controversial circumstances gave that actual triumph the ambivalent air of a merely moral victory.
Her opponent in the quarterfinals was China's Chen Zhong. Zhong was favorite for the gold medal, but Stevenson had beaten her in competition before. A close fight was heading into its dying moments, with Stevenson trailing. Then, with ten seconds left on the clock, Stevenson slipped past Zhong's defenses and caught her full in the face with a kick; Zhong's head snapped back with the force of the blow. Those three points would secure victory by the narrowest of margins.
Or rather, they would have. But in the moments after Stevenson's kick landed, nothing happened. The judges registered no hit and the final seconds of the bout went by. Zhong celebrated victory, the British team raised their stunned objections, and for a while the arena descended into the tense disarray that marks a sporting event suddenly sunk into bureaucratic panic.
What eventually followed was a grudging reversal: "We have to change this result and we have to declare the British player as winner," the announcement went. "We are very sorry to the spectators of China but justice is first. Thank you for understanding." There was no such apology to Stevenson, who felt the prolonged confusion had interfered with her preparation for the next bout, and left her with bronze instead of contending for gold.
So in London, Stevenson is fighting to right a wrong, and for another chance at the Olympic gold medal she was denied, this time on home ground. She's also fighting for her parents' memory. Stop the clock, and her 2011 World Championship victory in Korea was a triumph over adversity, after her parents had been diagnosed with cancer. Let the clock run on, and adversity makes a comeback.
In January 2011, Stevenson returned home to Doncaster in the north of England after training in Cuba, knowing that her mother was ill: pneumonia, they said, although it soon became clear that it was something worse. "When she saw me, my mum cried," Stevenson told The Observer that year. "She looked at me and said: 'I don't want to die'. For a daughter to hear them words…"
While her mother underwent chemotherapy, Stevenson supported her father. Then, in April, she got a call that her father had been rushed to hospital. It was a brain tumor, and Stevenson had to walk between the wards to break the news to her mother.
Two weeks later, she was flying to the World Championshipsin Korea. When the judges named her the victor after sudden death in the final against Guo Yunfei of China, she made two quick leaps for joy then fell to her knees, forehead on the ground, crying with abandon, climbing up to lean on the shoulder of her coach and husband, then weeping on the shoulder of her opponent. Now, as a coach and inspirational speaker, this is the story that Stevenson tells, the one which shows how bravery and determination get their reward. If her life were turned into a fable or a movie, it would stop here, because it’s hard to draw a moral lesson or a sense of uplift from what followed.
In July of 2011, her father, Roy, died; her mother, Diana, followed in November. Stevenson was 29.
"The first thing mum said when we knew it were cancer was: 'You've got to go to the Olympics and win it.' Same with dad. He just thought they'd be there to see me do it. He thought he was invincible. None of us are," she said in The Observer interview. "I want to win gold for mum and dad. After that, I can start grieving properly."
Even athletes find it hard to resist the lure of a story with a happy ending. They are encouraged to tell such stories to themselves, both implicitly and as an actual training method—visualizing success is supposed to help them achieve it. (Some psychologists suggest that may be counterproductive, however, tricking weary bodies into feeling as though the battle is already won.)
But when Stevenson eventually faced 21-year-old Paige McPherson from the USA in the preliminary round, events went off-script. Despite a home crowd roaring Stevenson on, McPherson took the first three points with a swift kick to the head.
In the second round, Stevenson took two shots to the body to extend her deficit to five points, before clawing one back. Hopes of a happy ending lay in a final round comeback. They were dashed, and only two appeals against head-kicks prevented an even bigger defeat.
The stories that Stevenson told afterwards about the effect of a knee injury and the toll of the previous 18 months were surely true, even if they struggled to compete with a pre-packaged triumph-over-tragedy tale. But her expression as the fight ended, a mask of emotional exhaustion, was eloquent. Wanting it wasn’t enough, being brave wasn’t enough, being skilful and working hard weren’t enough.
Where do we get the idea that virtue and bravery should prevail in sport? It's not as if life abounds with examples of perfect justice.
"She fought so hard, and it was for nothing," Stevenson said of her mother's illness. We are learning to frown on battle metaphors for the treatment of cancer, because they seem wrongly to cast disease as a moral struggle, and people don't die because they didn't try hard enough or think positively enough. Sometimes the body just reaches its limits. But the same is true in sport, and in fighting: Stevenson fought so hard, and it was for nothing.
When we say someone deserved to win, we may mean they had better technique and athleticism, and were robbed by an unlucky bounce or a poor decision by officials, like Stevenson in Beijing. Other times we mean that we were moved by a competitors’ courage, and wish that it had a better reward. Taught that sport builds character, we easily slip into assuming the reverse: that character and bravery should result in success.
Sport narratives come with this moral charge partly because so many sports were developed and promoted precisely for moral improvement. The "muscular Christianity" movement, ascendant in British public schools during the Victorian era, when many team sports were being codified—and which influenced the modern Olympic movement—was preoccupied with promoting "manly virtues." Some of its advocates, such as Charles Kingsley, were writers and storytellers, and as such inclined to frame morals within narratives. To Kingsley, sport was even better than books, though he saw them as serving the same didactic purpose. "Through sport," Kingsley wrote, "boys acquire virtues which no books can give them."
"Not merely daring and endurance, but, better still, temper, self-restraint, fairness, honour, unenvious approbation of another's success, and all that 'give and take' of life which stand a man in good stead when he goes forth into the world, and without which, indeed, his success is always maimed and partial."
Versions of this kind of talk still emerge today whenever a sports commentator is feeling high-minded. It’s a view of sport which endures defeat stoically, but shuns raw emotion. Triumph and disaster are the "twin impostors" of Rudyard Kipling's "If–", to be treated with equal indifference; one should "never breathe a word about your loss." Who needs to, when reward and redemption are queuing up in the next life?
Today's culture is doubtful about all that, so redemption narratives need to focus on the next match, next season, next Olympics. Almost every defeat can be recast as the prelude to a comeback. In this way, failure is erased from the essence of sport, as distilled in adverts for sportswear: Nike, after all, is the winged goddess of victory. The slothful goddess of despair has no marketing budget.
Commercial images try to persuade us that sport means stupendous bodies carrying out impossible feats, suspended in mid-air slow-motion like Michelangelo's Adam high-fiving his creator. Stopping or slowing time is a crucial aspect of this vision: old athletes are only present as legacies or preserved in amber at their peak. There is room for the hand of God, but not necessarily for Fat Maradona.
And yet the actual sport we watch in between adverts is one of popular culture's most intense venues for confronting failure, bodily collapse, emotional and mental exhaustion. No one likes to think about defeat, but in sport it is never absent, since every triumph means someone else’s loss. And vice versa: Stevenson's failure in London 2012 opened the way for Paige McPherson to win a bronze medal at her first Olympics. Spectators have the luxury of turning their attention to the victor’s continuing story, and the loser has to find her own way.
Just a few days before her London bout, Stevenson was interviewed for a charity she supports, Grief Encounter, which helps children coping with the death of their parents.
"I'm quite lucky that I've got other people that care about me and love me and are trying their best to fill that gap. But they can't, it's not the same," she said. This refusal to be consoled has a strength of its own in its insistence on the unique value of what has been lost. It seems significant, too, that Stevenson chose a small charity helping people cope with loss rather than the famous cancer research organizations that aim to prevent it.
Asked if she has any advice for bereaved children, Stevenson suggests that enduring grief means maintaining yourself between contradictions: that life can't stop, the way adverts slow or freeze time into perfect static memories, but that sometimes the struggle against dejection will be lost and things will come crashing to a halt.
"I think my parents would want me to be happy and not upset about them not being here. Because then your life will stop, and that's the last thing they'd ever want," she said. "It's hard to do that, because you miss them so much, it is hard to just get on with your life and think about what they would want, but you've got to.
"There's times when I just say to myself, right, today I'm just going to be sad and cry, because I want to. Just give yourself a bit of time to say, 'I've done that, now I'm not going to cry tomorrow, I'm going to do something.' I think it's a good balance to pick some times and say, 'today I'm upset and I'm just going to let it happen.' The more you fight it, the longer it goes on: it goes on for another day, and another day. If you just allow yourself that time, and say today that's it, and then you move on."
Stevenson could have stopped after Korea and retired a champion, fitting perfectly into a familiar sports narrative. But her decision to carry on towards failure can be seen as part of the same aggression which made her world champion in the first place: a refusal to stick only with what you have, a recognition that life involves a willingness to risk even inconsolable losses. There isn’t a familiar genre that celebrates decisions like these: testing the limits of your abilities by pressing onwards to eventual defeat without hope of a comeback, and then looking that loss square in the eye. Perhaps there should be.