Second. Best.

Having not won a gold medal in the Olympic marathon for four years, of course Abebe Bikila triumphantly crossed the finish line first in Tokyo in 1964. Bikila beat Basil Heatley (of whom more later) by just over four minutes. Winning an Olympic marathon by over four minutes is likely unprecedented--although I am much too lazy to do the requisite three of minutes of actual research it would take to determine that with certainty--and hard to describe accurately. Four minutes of marathon time is equivalent to months of real time for you and me and don't even ask me about how long four minutes of marathon time would be in dog years. Winning a marathon by four minutes is comparable to winning a World Cup soccer game seven to zero. Four minutes is a rout. Four minutes equates to almost A FULL MILE in an Olympic marathon. So when Bikila has finished his victory lap around the stadium in Japan there still aren't any other runners in sight. The folks in the stands could have another round of sake or return a few calls before any other runners even show up. And speaking of those other runners, these are not my balding, paunchy, middle-aged running buddies whom Bikila is beating like a herd of borrowed mules. These are 68 of the best runners on the planet representing 41 countries. The other runners typically WIN races. Not this one. Not with Bikila on the course.

The stories of Bikila are legendary. In 1960, Bikila won the gold medal in the Olympic marathon in Rome. Rome as in Italy. Italy as in the country that had bombed Ethiopia back into the Stone Age in 1937. Ethiopia as in, you guessed it, Bikila's homeland. Would it be an exaggeration to suggest that for all intents and purposes, Bikila WAS Ethiopia after the Second World War? He was also the first Black African man to win an Olympic medal. It is my understanding that there have been a number of Olympic medals won by Black Africans subsequently.*

But back to Tokyo in 1964: Three minutes after Bikila is milling about, stretching, wondering if the rest of the marathon field stopped for coffee or something, here comes Kokichi Tsuburaya. Tsuburaya (of whom much more later) is the hometown favorite. In his native Japan, Tsuburaya is welcomed by the deafening cheers of 80,000 supporters. Tsuburaya is in second place, 20 yards ahead of Heatley, with only a lap to go. Can Tsuburaya hang on for the silver? The crowd is on its feet. Tsuburaya has to run one more quarter mile in 75 seconds. Here comes Heatley. Tsuburaya digs deep. Can he do it?

We interrupt our regularly scheduled column for the following note: No one reading this newsletter can run ONE quarter mile in 75 seconds. It is unlikely that anyone reading this newsletter has EVER run a quarter mile in 75 seconds. Not even when you were young and fit. Tsuburaya has just run 104 consecutive 75-second quarters and needs one more to stave off Heatley who is closing fast.

Now Tsuburaya picks up the pace. Yet his lead over Heatley is down to 10 yards. Tsuburaya and Heatley are on the straightaway. Twenty-six miles into the most important race of his life, Heatley comes up with a torrent of speed and zooms by Tsuburaya. Heatley goes by Tsuburaya so fast that Tsuburaya has to look down at his feet to see if he has stopped moving. (Runner humor. Sorry.) Tsuburaya can not meet Heatley's challenge. Heatley finishes three seconds ahead of Tsuburaya. They take home the silver and bronze medals respectively. Tsuburaya is humiliated. He says, "I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to make amends by running and hoisting the [Japanese flag] in the next Olympics, in Mexico**

So Tsuburaya trains for four more years. Trains like a dog. Trains every day. Trains in the heat, trains in the rain. He eats healthy, goes to the gym, runs probably 120 miles each week. (Seriously.) He is committed to winning the marathon in Mexico City. He is devoted to the idea of bringing honor to his family and his country. Except he hurts his back. (Stuff happens.) His running career is over. He can no longer train or compete so--after leaving a thoughtful note thanking his parents for their support and his siblings for bringing him food--Tsuburaya kills himself.

An utter and complete tragedy. Four years previously Tsuburaya is the third best marathoner on the planet. Then he is dead, having slit his wrists in his room at the training center. Which brings us to my point for this week: maybe it's better if we help our kids to do the best they can. Because striving to be Number One doesn't leave much room for error. If you do win the gold medal, graduate first in your class, I wonder if there is as much satisfaction as people think. Yeah, there's a celebration, but then it's back to wondering who is going to break the record, push you off the pedestal. Plus the issue of cheating is beyond disgusting: Cyclists bullying, lying, and taking drugs; ice skaters mugging their competition; baseball players ingesting harmful chemicals; pre-med students sabotaging one another's lab work. Who needs this? The pressure to be number one can lead to strained parent-child relationships, depression, and--in extreme cases--suicide. 

 We spend a tremendous amount of time and attention on "winners" in this culture. But there are many more kids who won't be number one. That's just arithmetic. Given a choice, I'd rather my kids were content with--forgive me for repeating--doing the best that they can. Study hard, play hard. Then have a sandwich. An arbitrary place number is a bridge too far.

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* For the chronically irony impaired, let me state unequivocally and without humor: Black men from Africa have dominated distance running from five kilometers to the marathon for the past half century. There are four Kenyans who have run sub 2:04 marathons. No one else has ever run sub 2:04. The following stat should make the point: the number of Americans who have run sub 2:10 marathons is 12. The number of Kenyans who have run sub 2:10 marathons in 37. Last October.

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** Thank you, Wikipedia!

5 thoughts on “Second. Best.

  1. Mary Iuvone

    Mr. Altshuler,

    Love your work. Your stories and common sense advice helps me get through the week. It’s a crazy competitive world out there and parents can easily lose perspective but YOUR work makes me stop and think and take a deep breath and realize my son’s future will not be decided by one math test score..or spelling test score..he’s in 5th grade..let’s keep a perspective.

    My son works very hard for good grades. It’s more important he works hard ..yes an A or 100 on a test is satisfying ..but it’s the climb and the journey and the time spent working on getting there. I love spending time with my son.. studying or playing baseball or just hanging out. In 10 years he’ll be off living his life..these are the days to remember.

    Thank you for all you do. Your words and insight have made a positive impact.

    Mary

    Reply
  2. Chere

    Appreciate this article. Not having a competitive bone in my body makes it harder for me to understand the extreme pressure people endure to be THE winner. Where’s the peace in that?.

    Reply
  3. Martin

    Thanks. Good story well told. Enjoyed reading it.
    And could not agree more with the moral of the story.

    I share much of Chere’s sentiments: There is no peace is needing to be THE winner.
    Not that a Nobel Prize would be unacceptable. But as it generally takes 25-50 years to
    get one of those, there has to be a lot of intrinsic motivation along the way.

    Reply

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