Jarrion Lawson lept into the Brazilian night and landed in the sand, confident he had gold in his grasp. He was certain he exceeded his American teammate, Jeff Henderson, who was in first with a jump of 8.38 meters. When Lawson’s mark was revealed, he was astonished to see his leap recorded as 8.25 meters. Lawson not only lost the gold, he failed to medal, falling to fourth place behind Luvo Manyonga of South Africa and Greg Rutherford of Great Britain.
Lawson, in the follow through, had apparently grazed the sand with the fingers of his left hand before his feet landed. While Henderson was thrilled with his victory as he trotted along the track wrapped in his nation’s flag, he could see his teammate in the throes of agony. Such is life in the cut-throat world of athletic competitions measured in hundredths of centimeters or seconds under the microscope of digital recordings.
It must have been what Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Hosszu felt when American Maya DiRado touched the wall .04 seconds earlier in the 200-meter backstroke finals. It must have been what Chad Le Clos or László Cseh felt when they tied Michael Phelps for second, losing to Singaporean Joseph Schooling in the 100-meter butterfly finals, as they all finished at exactly 51.14 seconds. But at least they got to share silver.
And perhaps, more painfully, it must have been what 4-time gold medalist, Allyson Felix felt when she hit the tape at the end of the 400-meter sprint finals, only to see Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dive over the line, her hands, wrists and ultimately her shoulder hitting the finish line earlier than Felix’s torso.
Jim McKay, the late, great host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, began his show by explaining his show’s raison d’etre: to deliver sports that showed “the human drama of athletic competition”, “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”
The thrill for one often comes at the agony of the other. That’s why we love the Olympics.
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