They are statements that most people in India have encountered at least once in their lives: “Winning is not important. Taking part is.” A variant, “it is not bad to lose as long as one has fought well or done one’s best.” A Hindi version goes “Jaan loge bacchey ki?” (“do you want the child to die for victory?”)
The statements are used as platitudes, to lessen the grief of defeat. What not too many know is that they are in fact derived from comments attributed to the man many consider the Father of the Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. What he is believed to have said is:
“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Noble sentiments indeed. But ones which have been increasingly forgotten in competitive times where aggression and overbearing confidence rather than humility are considered trademarks of champions. Defeats, be it in cricket or in the Olympics, have not been met with grief or sadness but outrage, anger and sometimes even cynical humour (remember the Shobha De tweet a few days ago). Defeats are analysed threadbare with the same enthusiasm that victory is celebrated, making India a nation that tends to revere victory and detest defeat.
Indeed, if they met with triumph and disaster, many Indian “sports fans and critics” (the quotes are, alas, intentional) would profess not to know the latter at all, far from treating “those two impostors just the same”, as recommended by Kipling.
Some would defend this and call it a winner’s mindset. After all, why should anyone appreciate defeat? Isn’t it being left behind by someone? You don’t win silver, you lose gold, right?
On the eve of India’s 70th independence day, a 23-year-old gymnast from Tripura became the toast of the nation. She had won…nothing. Not even an Olympic medal. Dipa Karmakar finished fourth in the vault in the Rio Olympics.
Had this been a cricket match or a hockey one, or even a badminton one, the critics would have been up in arms. A lot of noise would have made about money being wasted, about players being more worried about shopping and selfies than about their sport, and of course, the normal “countries with populations less than Delhi win more medals than India” argument would have been dry cleaned and trotted out.
But for Dipa Karmakar, the nation stood up and applauded. Twitter and Facebook were filled with posts praising the girl for her grit and courage, and for daring to try one of the most difficult vaults, the Produnova, in her attempt to win her country its first ever Olympic medal in gymnastics. People pointed out the difficulties she had faced in her career and the obstacles she had overcome to get this far in the Olympics.
Yes, Dipa was defeated. Three women finished ahead of her. But in her country, there was little sign of disappointment or outrage. The nation did not want to know why Dipa Karamakar had not won a medal. It was too busy celebrating the fact that she had done her best and come fourth.
Dipa Karmakar’s greatest achievement was not to finish fourth or to attempt a Produnova. It was to remind India that you don’t need to win to be a hero that effort deserves as much – if not more – applause than victory.
Thanks to a 23-year-old from Tripura, India had discovered that “the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Somewhere, Pierre de Coubertin will be smiling…