Oscar Pistorius and McKayla Maroney: Beautiful losers

In defeat, Olympians Oscar Pistorius and McKayla Maroney showed more grace than most gold medalists

Topics: 2012 Summer Olympics, McKayla Maroney, Oscar Pistorius, 2012 Olympics, USA Gymnastics, Disability, Paralympics,

Oscar Pistorius and McKayla Maroney: Beautiful losersU.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney botches her landing during the artistic gymnastics women's vault final at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Sunday. (Credit: AP/Gregory Bull)

Every Olympics is defined by certain once-in-a-lifetime, did-you-see-that? moments. Gabby Douglas suspended in midair above the balance beam in her gold medal-winning performance. Usain Bolt striking his celebratory lightning flash pose after his near-supernatural victory in the 100-meter. And then there are the other kind of moments. A runner bringing up the rear in dead last place. A young gymnast flat on her rear.

But the very different defeats Sunday of McKayla Maroney and Oscar Pistorius were, in their own ways, among the brightest and most inspiring events of these or any others. They were the latest chapters in the narratives of two uniquely brilliant athletes, moments that will forever define their careers – and stand out as brilliant examples of truly stunning achievement.

That the man who came in last in the 400 meters, South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, was even in the race at all was a major victory. The first double amputee to compete in track and field, he’s been a source of admiration – and controversy – since he began competing. He was born without fibula in both legs and had his legs amputated below the knees before he was a year old. Because he runs on springy Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetics, he was initially banned from the 2008 Olympics on the grounds they would give him an unfair advantage. Pistorius took his quest to court and won a reversal, but wound up not qualifying for Beijing. He competed in the Paralympics there and won three gold medals.

After making the South African team at the London Olympics, the 25-year-old known as Blade Runner showed unprecedented promise. On Saturday, he placed second in the 400-meter heat with a blazing time of 45.44 seconds. But in Sunday’s trial he fared considerably less well, coming in last and bringing his hopes of moving on to a sudden stop. Yet the entirety of his performance was a stunning example of grit and power – made all the more intense by what happened when it was over. It was then that the victor and favorite to grab the gold, Grenada’s Kirani James, made his way to Pistorius. The two then hugged, and, in an Olympic first, exchanged bibs.

It was a display of the best aspect of the competitive spirit — of a mutual acknowledgment of respect and admiration. Pistorius, who called running in the Olympics a “mind-blowing” “dream come true,” told NBC afterward, “As soon as we crossed the finish line, we’re friends. It was very kind of him.” And James, returning the compliment, declared that “Oscar is someone special, especially in our event. It’s a memorable moment for me to be out here performing with him.” Pistorius will compete later this week in the relay, and then go on to the Paralympic games. At those, he has every chance in the world of taking home more gold. From there, he already says that, “In 2016, I’ll probably be at my peak in Rio. I’m looking forward to that more than anything.” But when he came in last on Sunday, he showed something else to the world. He showed what it means to go out and give your all and be joyful in the effort. That run, that exchange of bibs, was an act of love between Pistorius and everyone rooting for him. And it was a display of what’s possible when you define yourself not by what you lack but by what you dream.

It was a story that played out in a different fashion elsewhere, in the performance of gymnast McKayla Maroney. If there was anything like a sure thing in these games, it would have been the 2011 world vaulting champion coming home with a gold medal around her neck. NBC’s coverage of the competition Sunday made her victory all but a fait accompli, each other performance held against the standard of what Maroney, the penultimate vaulter, would do when it was her turn. Indeed, her first vault was near perfection. And then, for her finish, the vault that would bring home gold, she landed flat on her posterior.

It was a sight that produced gasps both in London and around television sets across the globe. How could Maroney, for whom the phrase “nailed it” seems to have been invented, have crashed? It was so unbelievable Maroney herself seemed uncomprehending. A look of pure puzzlement flashed across her face before she got up, lifted her arms in the air, and walked off to the sidelines. Her score for her first attempt was so good she still managed to find herself in first place, but it was the final gymnast, Romanian Sandra Izbasa, who executed the best performance and took the gold.

It was a shocking upset, but it was also, somehow, par for the course. There is no such thing as a sure thing in life, even for a heavily favored champ. Maroney herself said afterward, “I didn’t deserve to win gold if I landed on my butt.” She then added, “I was still happy with a silver, but it’s still just sad.”

There are only a tiny handful of individuals in the history of the planet who can do what Maroney does on the vault. Yet there is not one among us who doesn’t know the feeling of landing on one’s metaphoric or literal ass, or the mortification of failure. But as the great Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get up.” And what Maroney did, with supreme finesse, was get up. She bore it with dignity. She acknowledged the pain of loss and accepted the still pretty damn remarkable thing she’d earned instead.

Maroney didn’t ever want to be an example of how to be strong in defeat, but then, who among us cherishes that particular fantasy? Yet that’s what she got. Everyone wants to be the best. Everyone wants to be first. But what happens when we’re not is what defines us, just as deeply as our triumphs. In their defeats, both Pistorius and Maroney showed the world how to survive failure. How to accept a hug when you were going for a medal. How to get up when you fall down. It wasn’t victory. But it was graceful as hell.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>