We've had #UsainBolt proclaiming himself the best ever, a proclamation with which it would be difficult to argue, certainly on the athletics track. We've had #MichaelPhelps bowing out with more Olympic gold and other medals than any other sportsman in history (and more gold medals than two thirds of the countries in the world), which makes him the greatest Olympian ever if medals are the benchmark. We've had Wayde van Niekerk break the 400m track Olympic and World records by such a margin that even the legendary Michael Johnson was awe-struck, although my impression was that Wayde himself couldn't quite understand what all the fuss was about. We also had Luvo Manyonga ending his journey on the streets by escaping a serious drug habit and cracking a silver in the long jump, and we had Lawrence Brittain (with his team mate Shaun Keeling) winning silver in the rowing, 18 months after being diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Unbelievable triumphs.
But then again, we had Chad Le Clos bitching about what a poor race he had in the 200m butterfly to come fourth and his boring silver medal in the 100m butterfly? And how many other athletes did we hear saying: "Gutted to have only got silver / missed out on a medal and only come fourth", rather than saying: "I'm blown away and grateful to have made it into a final and been the second, third or fourth best in the world!"? Granted there were many who were glad to have got a medal of any colour, but not too many who patted themselves on the back for a fourth or fifth place or simply for being there to help make up the numbers
I accept that the perspective is usually different when you are a spectator rather than a participant, but I personally celebrated Akani Simbine's fifth place in the men's 100m track race. What an astonishing achievement, to be the fifth fastest human being on the planet! I suspect he was pretty pleased with that performance as well.
The truth is that a minuscule number of people in the world become Olympians - perhaps 0.001%. Even fewer make the finals of their events and only three of those medal, with one being gold. We (and the athletes) tend to forget that the odds of medalling at the end of the day are so miniscule as to be close to impossible for all but a tiny handful of people - rather like the odds of winning a lottery.
So when you get into an Olympic event, you are already extra-ordinary i.e. way beyond ordinary in terms of physical prowess and ability. Most people would give their proverbial eye teeth for that prowess, so ungracious losers just get up my nose. I am more inspired by people who are unconditionally grateful for their gifts and opportunities, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary those gifts might be.
For someone to come fourth in an event is flipping exceptional! To think that it sucks is missing a huge piece about which to be grateful. The disappointment in not medalling is partly an ego thing - somehow athletes come home thinking they haven't quite cut the bacon by only being in the minor placings. This is partly because of the weight of expectation which society at large puts on them, but I would suggest that it is more about the demand they put on themselves to be the very best. The one thing we know, however, is that they greater the demand or expectation that we (or something) should be or end up a certain way, the greater the level of disappointment and suffering when it ends up some other how.
A great irony is that Caster Semeya's excellence sucks in a completely different way. Gifted with physical attributes that make her the fastest woman over 800m also give her the freedom she derives from her running, but there must also be times when she regards her physcial attributes as an absolute curse rather than a gift.
The invitation, therefore, is to do or be the very best we can, but without placing a demand on the outcome or how we should be in order to achieve it. Is it not enough to celebrate our greatness, or uniqueness for what it is, rather than insist that we compare ourselves with every other Tom, Dick and Harry to prove that we are better than them? So what if we're better? How does it make us feel better about ourselves when we 're better than the next guy?
If that's the way we want to play the game, prepare to be disappointed, because the truth is there's only one Usain Bolt and one Michael Phelps, and the chances of any of us being one of them are 1 in 7 billion, so be happy with what you have and what you know to be true about yourself. You'll be so glad you did.