By Ian Crouch, The New Yorker Recommends
"I can still recall the juvenile moral certitude that I felt, in 1994, upon watching the French figure skater Surya Bonaly earn second place at the World Championships, refuse to join her fellow-skaters on the winners’ podium, and then hastily remove her silver medal. The gesture seemed so petulant, entitled, French. It marked her, above all, as that worst of things: a sore loser. At the time, smarter people than me recognized Bonaly’s response for what it was: the frustration of years spent as a black skater in a world of ice princesses, of being rated inelegant by judges despite her field-lapping technical prowess, and of coming in second despite acing the most demanding routine of the competition. “It’s not right,” Bonaly said later, when confronted by a pack of journalists.
I got the chance to rethink Bonaly’s moment of protest thanks to the new Netflix documentary series “Losers,” directed by Mickey Duzyj, which combines archival footage, contemporary interviews, and clever animation to tell eight stories of athletes whose careers are largely defined by falling short of victory. Duzyj stretches the definition of the word “loser”—being the second-best figure skater in the world, or, as with the boxer Michael Bentt, the subject of the first episode, briefly the heavyweight champion, is awfully good. But the series’ great strength is the way that it forces us to interrogate familiar ideas about success and failure in sports—to consider, for example, that Bonaly’s great moment of triumph, despite winning five European championships, could have come in 1998, during her final appearance at the Olympics, when, suffering from an injury, she decided to execute an illegal but astounding backflip on the ice, drawing the ire of the judges but the adoration of the crowd. Even more persuasive are the images we see of her now, in her mid-forties, skating just for herself, all her accumulated skill and experience aged into an arresting grace. It’s a reminder of how much of what athletes do is intensely personal, and how much goes unrecorded in the official results.
In this moment, when many of the self-proclaimed winners around us are so wanting in their humanity, it’s invigorating to pass some time with people who are speaking honestly about disappointment. As a golf executive named Alain Pelillo says, about the French golfer Jean van de Velde, whose famous collapse at the 1999 British Open is tenderly recalled in the series’ final episode, “If we learn from defeat, we should pay a bit more attention to those who lose.” These nominal losers, and those who love them, say all kinds of profound and surprising things. Van de Velde talks about the impermanence of life; the ex-wife of Mauro Prosperi, the Italian ultramarathoner who survived getting lost during a multi-day race in a Moroccan desert, talks about his need to run as a kind of unknowable selfishness. My favorite bit of wisdom comes from the legendary Canadian curler Al (the Iceman) Hackner, who recalls losing the 1981 national championship in dismal fashion and then, afterward, sitting downtrodden with his teammates in the locker room. “Where would we be if we had won this game?” he remembers asking. At the bar, they all agreed. “Well, then, let’s go,” he said."
The Losers, lensed by DP Adam Uhl, is available for streaming on Netflix.