The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘The Agony of Defeat’

Posted on | September 5, 2021 | Comments Off on ‘The Agony of Defeat’

You’ve probably never heard of Vinko Bogataj, but the Slovenian ski-jumper once possessed a certain notoriety. At a 1970 competition in Germany, Bogataj crashed spectacularly, suffering a concussion and a broken ankle. For years thereafter, film footage of Bogataj’s crash was replayed in the opening sequence of ABC’s Wide World of Sports to illustrate “the agony of defeat” (in contrast to “the thrill of victory”).


In so much as athletic competition is about anything more than entertainment, recreation and physical fitness, it is about learning to cope with adversity, giving us life lessons about persistence. Historically, organized athletic competition is associated with the training of warriors, which is why, for example, throwing the javelin remains an Olympic event. When we speak of running a marathon, we pay tribute to Pheidippides, the Athenian courier who was dispatched from the battlefield of Marathon in 490 B.C. to inform the rulers that the Greeks had won a victory over the invading Persian army. After running the 26-mile distance, Pheidippides legendarily arrived where the Athenian archons were sitting in counsel, anxious for news. Pheidippides gasped: “Rejoice! Victory!” And then died on the spot.

Speed, strength and dexterity are all useful qualities developed in athletics, and useful to the soldier, but endurance is what really counts. Ask any soldier what a 12-mile ruck march is like. Even for a young man in his healthy prime, a long march under a 50-pound pack is an ordeal that tests not merely physical conditioning, but also requires mental toughness — an iron-willed determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how sore and exhausted he may be.

“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” is a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the victorious Allied army in that famous battle, and if the quote is apocryphal, it nevertheless accurately captures the role of athletics in preparing youth for the demands of a warrior’s life. Even the greatest must occasionally suffer “the agony of defeat” — and keep playing the game.

This determination to keep fighting, even when it seems all hope is lost, is what Winston Churchill famously expressed in that dark moment after Dunkirk when Britain found itself desperately alone, facing Hitler’s triumphant war machine, and threatened with invasion:

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

So he said, and so it was — although it never came to fighting the Germans on the beaches and fields of England, because the Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe, preventing Hitler’s planned invasion.

Well, there’s Hitler, and then there’s Clemson — but before you say “Godwin’s Law,” however, permit me to clarify that I am not comparing the Clemson University football team to der Führer, even though my Clemson alumni friend Jeff Quinton has lately been ragging the University of Alabama on social media, and thus comparing Clemson to Nazis would be fair game, by the rules of Southern football trash-talking.

Unlimited retaliation — if you trash my team, there are no limits to what I can say about your team. So if you go hating on ’Bama, don’t expect a ’Bama fan to turn the other cheek. Clemson is a Nazi football team, and Dabo Swinney is Hitler, and therefore — to extend this absurd analogy — the Georgia Bulldogs are the Red Army and Saturday night’s game was the Battle of Stalingrad. In a brutal defensive struggle, Georgia did not get a single offensive touchdown, but Bulldog linebacker Nolan Smith intercepted a pass from Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and returned it 74-yards for a TD. That would prove to be all Georgia needed, as they held on to win 10-3. Georgia’s defense sacked Uiagalelei seven times. Losing their opener puts Clemson in a tough spot, if they hope to return to the championship playoff, which has never had a team with two defeats on their record. Therefore, Clemson would almost certainly have to win every remaining game to have any chance at the title.

Alabama fans know what that’s like. In the third game of the 2015 season, Alabama was ranked No. 2 when they got beat by Ole Miss, and then won the rest of their games to eventually earn a shot at the national title, defeating Clemson 45-40 in the championship game. Alabama and Clemson have met in the championship game twice since then, with Clemson winning the rematches in 2017 and 2019.

Alabama won its opener Saturday, trouncing the University of Miami 44-13 in a game that wasn’t really even as close as that lopsided score. Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young lived up to the pre-season hype, throwing four touchdowns — the most ever by a first-time starting QB for ’Bama, eclipsing the record previously held jointly by Joe Namath and Mac Jones. There had been some pre-game trash-talking by Miami QB D’Eriq King. but the Crimson Tide defense repaid that on the field, sacking King four times and intercepting him twice. Miami had been ranked 14th coming into the game, and the question now is whether (a) they were overrated or (b) Alabama is just that good.

Speaking of overrated, why the heck was North Carolina ranked 10th? They got beat 17-0 by unranked Virginia Tech, which is now the top team in the ACC. Along with the losses by Clemson and Miami, Georgia Tech and Duke also lost their season openers, while FSU plays Notre Dame tonight. The ACC is a great conference, if you like basketball, but when it comes to football, the SEC is the undisputed powerhouse.

What about the Big Ten, you ask? Indiana can’t even spell “Indiana” right, and they lost their opener to Iowa, 34-6. Ohio State beat Minnesota 45-31, but does anyone care? Maryland opened with a non-conference victory over West Virginia, 30-24. Michigan State beat Northwestern 38-21. Illinois, which had stunned Nebraska 30-22 in their Aug. 28 opener, somehow managed to lose 37-30 this week to USTA (University of Texas-San Antonio). But the really important Big Ten game this week, from my perspective, was a matchup between two teams ranked in the Top 20. Badger fans were going wild in Madison before 12th-ranked Wisconsin met 19th-ranked Penn State, but alas, Badger QB Graham Mertz threw two interceptions, and the Nittany Lions won 16-10. But don’t blame the Wisconsin quarterback, blame David Hookstead.

Hookstead, a Wisconsin alumnus and sports editor of the Daily Caller, made the mistake last week of writing, “I’m not an Alabama fan at all.” But you know who is an Alabama fan? God, that’s who. By trash-talking Alabama, Hookstead unwittingly invoked a curse on his beloved Badgers, who suffered “the agony of defeat” as punishment.

Wisconsin is now doomed to be the Vinko Bogataj of college football.

I don’t make the rules. I’m just telling you what the rules are.

You’re whistling past the football graveyard, Dave. The Badgers are cursed — doomed beyond all hope of redemption — and you’re to blame.



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