AUGUST 8 — In a fairy tale, the last individual race of Usain Bolt’s career would have ended with the charismatic Jamaican winning yet another gold medal in Saturday night’s World Athletics Championships in London.
But life is not a fairy tale and Bolt did not win, only managing to finish third behind much-maligned American Justin Gatlin, who has never been forgiven by the majority of fans for taking performance enhancing drugs earlier in his career.
One might have expected Bolt, the fastest human being who has ever lived, to be devastated that his career is coming to an end after a failure. After all, throughout the last decade Bolt has only ever done one thing: won.
His unprecedented successes — eight Olympics gold medals and 11 more in World Championships — have made him an example for the rest of us to aspire to, because it’s easy to believe the whole of life is a competition.
From the evolutionary point of view, human beings are intrinsically competitive, just like every other living creature. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we are competing in everything we do, even when we’re not aware of it.
Give a group of toddlers a ball, and within minutes they’ll be fighting over it. Working out between themselves who is the leader of the pack, who the weak ones are, who shouldn’t be messed with. They make each other cry and scream but the strongest kids don’t care if that means they’ve got the ball.
Even at that age they just want to be winners. We start life like that, and it carries on all the way through.
When we get older, we compete at school. Not just in terms of grades and exam results but socially as well: who are the cool kids, who are the jokers, who are the hard workers, who are the best athletes, who plays in a band, who gets the girls.
On the face of it school is about learning, but just beneath the surface it’s also a socialisation process where we work out how we can compete with our peers for status and respect. And so it continues, because these are the basic animal instincts we’re born with and can never lose.
We are hard-wired to be inherently competitive. When humans first evolved, they had to compete night and day just to stay alive. Food, shelter, warmth, sex none of them were easy to find and without fierce competitive instincts you would die.
Now our lives are materially easier, but that hasn’t changed our basic natures. We are born to compete and over the last few years, nobody has been better at competing than Usain Bolt, who has set multiple world records and won practically every major race he has entered.
So you could regard Bolt’s story as a shining inspiration for everything that everyone should aspire to, and you could see his failure to win on Saturday as a sad and inappropriate finish to his career.
But there’s more to it than that.
When you scratch beneath the surface, life isn’t really just about winning. You can’t ‘win’ life. How could you possibly? The great problem with life is that it comes to an end and, as they say, you can’t take anything with you. When it all concludes, any victories you enjoyed become meaningless because everyone ends up the same way.
That’s the long-term view. And if you look at the shorter-term, it’s still not really possible to ‘win’ by competing endlessly because life’s challenges never end, and there is always defeat to deal with.
Man as a relentless competitor can never be fully satisfied because there is always the next promotion to aim for, a bigger house to buy, the newest sports car to impress people with.
At some point, if you can really claim to be a winner in life, you would have to be able to simply stop and say: ‘I have won’. But life, if you view it as a competition, won’t ever let you stop because there are always new, bigger and better things to aim for, and there is always someone with more than you.
For years, Bolt was an exception because there wasn’t anyone faster than him. For years, Bolt really was a true winner, because he always did.
That made him unique, but even for him it was destined to be nothing more than a short-term state of affairs. Bolt could not continue winning forever because age — life — would eventually catch up with him. One day, he would either have to bow out, accepting his days of winning were over, or lose.
And so, on Saturday, he lost. Of course, by most people’s standards finishing third would be worthy of celebration. But for Bolt, it was below the winning standards he has set and it could have left him crumbled.
However, it didn’t, and here is the most important point of all. Far from being destroyed by his failure to win, Bolt shrugged his shoulders, congratulated Gatlin with obvious sincerity and told interviewers: “That’s life.”
He’s absolutely right. That is life. Life is sometimes about losing, and another of sport’s valuable functions is that it teaches us how to lose.
Amazingly, Bolt — the man who had spent his whole career doing nothing but win — showed himself to be also adept at losing. And that, in my eyes, makes him even more of a hero than if he had won yet again.
This is the personal opinion of the columnist.