The Secret Softness of the Schadenfreudelympics

Joy of the Day 16/365: a terrible diving team and the art of failing right

So, apparently, the Filipino National Diving Team is terrible. A brief video circulating the internet shows their pre-Olympics qualifying event, during which the team's two divers not only mess up their dives but seem shocked when they hit the water. Both manage to earn scores of perfect zero.

They're not in the Olympics (surprise!), but people would love to see them. "Does anyone know when the Filipino diving team is on again?" one dude tweeted. "Can't-miss television." No kidding -- it's the kind of thing that makes you laugh out loud, even if you feel guilty doing it. It's a reminder that Schadenfreude means "shame-joy," emphasis on "joy."

After watching it a couple times, I realized that it was funny not only because of shame, but because of relief. The Olympics are fascinating because the athletes seem all but perfect. When Wu Minxia and her Chinese fellow divers dominate the competition with dive after flawless dive, they seem almost superhuman. 

Behind that appearance is incredible, almost self-destructive levels of dedication. "At the London Olympics, it was only after... Wu Minxia won yet another gold that her father admitted to her that her grandparents had died and that her mother had struggled for years with cancer," a Time story mentions, after describing five-year-olds with callused palms who chirp, "I enjoy eating bitterness," a Chinese idiom for persevering through suffering.

The Filipino divers seem to be going about it another way. Watching them, I began to think of another sport, and the humanizing, kindhearted ethos of falling it has developed.

Check out this video, for example.

I don't know who Christian Flores is; he seems to be just some random guy. There are skaters who have won big in the X-Games, which is the nearest thing skateboarders have to the Olympics. Google results don't imply that he's among them, or professional, or even a dude who gets free shoes from a sponsor. 

He's just this guy who keeps trying. 

Over video of him attempting a trick, he says he's made the effort for two years, visiting the spot about ten times each year and making about a hundred attempts per time. That's roughly 2,000 tries.

From what he says and does, it would seem 1,999 were failures.

He doesn't walk through each of the falls on the video -- there are too many for that -- but what he's doing is so common that another skateboarder, Bret Anthony Johnston, has written that "skateboarders [have] developed a crude taxonomy; there are ‘scorpion falls,’' belly flops so violent that your back arches and your toes nearly tap your scalp; ‘Wilsons,’ in which the board shoots forward and you loop backward like a cartoon character slipping on a banana; and ‘credit cards,’ which find the tip of your board securely slotted where the sun doesn’t shine." Most falls don't hurt, Johnston writes, but over visuals of tumbling, rolling, and screaming in frustration, Flores says, "I went to the hospital twice."

Whether or not they hurt, both skaters agree that the effort is worth it. "The trick, as it were, is to reach a détente with falling: to accept its inevitability while refusing to see it as a setback," Johnston writes in fancy, New York Times-worthy prose.

In softer words, Flores says, "I don't think it matters how much you tried something, I think it only matters how hard you went for it. And even if you didn't do it, but you still, like, tried your heart out, that's so amazing that you had the determination to try it, in my eyes."

The sweetness of that impressed me more than seeing perfect dives at the Olympics, actually. It seems more honest and more useful -- even at elite competitions, where most athletes will inevitably fail, of course.

Both things make me think of the Filipino diving team, who beef their dives, score zeros... and slap each other casual low-fives as they towel off afterward. Their détente with falling badly seems pretty much perfect. Good for them.

As for Flores, his persistence pays off. Halfway through the video -- right after puking on camera -- he lands his trick. The friend behind the camera gets so excited he jumps into his arms, hooting for joy.

It's not exactly equanimity, of course. But I couldn't help but feel joy with them.