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The agony of defeat – ‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scorecard’

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They say that history is written by the victors. But so too are the victors most often the ones written into history.

That fact is even truer in the sporting realm than it is elsewhere. By its very nature, sport is concerned with winners and losers. And while those who win are celebrated and lauded in the years that follow, their victory burnished by the sheer volume of memory – what of those who fall short? What of those who reach the pinnacle, only to be stopped just short.

“Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scorecard” (Penguin, $17) is a collection of pieces devoted to looking at those who never quite reached the top of the mountain. Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas – both of whom also have work included within – this assemblage of essays spans more than a century of athletic near-misses.

All told, there are 22 pieces here, 14 of which are previously unpublished. Every one of them is devoted to exploring what it means to lose, to be beaten. The reasons behind their shortfalls vary – some are faced with legendary opposition, while others simply deal with a bad day or bad luck – but all of them find ways to reflect the impact of almost. Some of these stories are funny, while others are sad and still others inspire, but all of them together paint a portrait of the truth behind loss. It’s a compelling journey through the competitive landscape, with all manner of sport and athlete represented.

Considering the wide range of subjects covered, different readers will find different stories more engaging. That being said, here are a few of the pieces I personally found to be highlights, though as always, your mileage may vary.

We’ll start right at the top. The collection’s very first essay is Charles Bock’s “The Sporting House.” It’s a story about the troubled basketball star Lloyd Daniels and his checkered efforts to take the court for UNLV back in that program’s outlaw heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Bock deconstructs his own relationship with the Daniels mythos and digs into Daniels’ immense and unlikely talent, as well as the personal difficulties that brought it all crashing down.

Immediately following is “Yankees Strike” by Bob Sullivan, wherein the author discusses his time on the fringes of organized baseball through the lens of not just his own experience, but that of a former semi-pro teammate who was poised to take the mound for the fabled New York Yankees … until the players’ strike of 1994-95 came to an end. It’s a love letter to the game, written by someone who clung to it with every fiber of his being.

Ryan Bailey’s “The Great Wimbledon FC Heist” is a phenomenal story about what happened when his hometown football club was purchased by outsiders and moved. That fandom disaster led to an explosive community effort that brought the game back to those who loved it. That includes the author and his father; it’s an illustration of the connection that sports can forge between fathers and sons.

Perhaps my low-key favorite of the bunch is the abundantly-titled “Chasing Ashton Eaton: An Unintended Pursuit of the World’s Greatest Athlete That No One Has Heard Of.” It’s the story of decathlete Jeremy Taiwo, told to writer Stefanie Loh. Taiwo spent the last decade as an elite competitor in the decathlon, one of America’s best and brightest. He just had the misfortune of coming along at the same time as the titular Eaton, who would turn out to be in the conversation for greatest of all time. Despite putting up elite performances for years, he always fell short of the sheer greatness of Eaton. In sports, as in life, sometimes it’s all in the timing.

And on and on. Brian Platzer’s “Two White Kids from New York Kicking Ass” looks at a pair of former table tennis phenoms that never quite made it to the mountaintop. Abby Ellin’s “Larry and the Ball” unpacks the writer’s feelings regarding an overdue athletic redemption from an unlikely source. There’s even an old dispatch from the 1908 Olympic Marathon written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“Losers” is packed with insight; each essay brings a new and different perspective to the idea of losing. These stories aren’t the sort of triumphant tales that are inspired by victory, but the truth is that most stories of winning are markedly similar. There are relatively few ways to win, but a nigh-infinite number of ways to lose. The stories of these so-called “losers” are ripe with nuance, allowing for an exploration of the challenges that come not just on the field of play, but off it as well.

“Losers” is a sports book, but it is also more than that. These essays offer a way to engage with the human condition; there’s a real empathy inspired by these pieces, whether we’re talking about Olympic gymnasts or heavyweight boxers or aging bullfighters. It’s about acknowledging that there’s a flip side to every victory and that there is value to those stories as well.

This time, history is written by the losers.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 August 2020 05:26

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