The Netflix documentary series Losers focuses on sports' greatest losers and the lessons we can learn from them. It tells the stories of eight of the most unfortunate runners-up. It's about the human drama in losing, and the personal, physical and societal challenges athletes face.
Everyone loves a good loser, don't they? We admire them for their perseverance, their willingness to get back up and keep going in spite of the obvious.
But we don't celebrate them as we do victors. Usually, we pity them, their misery and misfortune, desperately wanting to avoid the same fate. Winners are bolded and underlined in the history books, not losers.
A recent Netflix documentary series titled Losers challenges this narrative, instead focusing on sports' greatest losers and the lessons we can take from them. Losers tells the stories of eight of history's most unfortunate runners-up. It revels in the human drama of losing and the personal, physical and societal challenges athletes face. The episodes range from stories of squandered talent and the most grueling of obstacles to gut-wrenching collapses and personal tribulations. It's about crumbling in the face of enormous odds, yet finding the strength to dust yourself off and try again.
Some of the stories are of athletes once on top but experience a sudden fall from glory like the case of Michael Bentt. Michael was a young boxing star in New York City, winning the heavyweight title in 1993. But in his first match after, he got a massive blow to the head and suffered a career-ending brain injury. Following his failure, he fell deep into depression, eventually attempting suicide.
Other losers covered squared off against monumental physical and mental struggles. Mauro Prosperi, an Italian marathoner, enters a 150-mile race in Morocco through the Sahara. During the race, he gets lost in a sandstorm that throws him off course. He must wander with no way back, surviving by drinking urine and eating raw bats. After days and hundreds of miles of wandering, he's miraculously found by soldiers in Algeria. Mauro survives but he's unable to adjust back to normal life.
Then there's the story of American musher Aliy Zirkle. She finished second in the Iditarod three consecutive years, but those losses pale in comparison to what she faced in 2016. She is hit from behind by a man on a snowmobile who then decides to come back toward her, severely injuring her and her dogs. The man, drunk at the time, is charged with reckless endangerment and attempted murder. Aliy not only must face him in court but also struggle with her own trauma, wondering if she'll compete again.
French figure skater Surya Bonaly fails not for misfortune brought on by her own miscues but from social pressures. As a black figure skater in an overwhelmingly white sport, she's held to a higher standard of skill and elegance. In the 1994 World Championships, Surya dominates her routine, and the gold looks certain. But in a shocking turn of events, she finishes second in a completely subjective choice by the judges. In the medal ceremony, she refuses to congratulate the gold medal winner and rips off her silver medal in disgust. It's not the image of a sore loser but one of frustration that she can't overcome a biased institution that will never see her as worthy of gold.
These stories form the emotional core of the series. All their feelings come off as raw and honest in a way we can earnestly empathize with. They're all strong distillations of the behind-the-scenes turmoil we rarely have access to.
An element that stands out, distinguishing Losers from most sports documentaries, is the series' use of animated reenactments to make the moments not caught on camera spectacularly come alive. This animation is best when highlighting the most dramatic scenes, notably Mauro eating bats, and the attack on Aliy. The animated reenactments serve a single purpose; they elicit a strong emotional response from the viewer. One can't help but feel disgusted for Mauro, or terror and anger for Aliy.
Losers is a subtle reprieve of American culture's fixation on winning at all costs. For many, it took facing serious hardship to realize winning wasn't everything. And when that's realized, they could compete again, or excel in other aspects of life not wholly concerned with sport. Mauro and Aliy dealt with the pain of almost dying, yet both found the strength to race again. To this day, neither has finished first, but it's the love of their sport that keeps them motivated. Surya moved on from competitive figure skating to inspire girls of color to participate in the sport. Michael became a writer, actor and boxing trainer for actors in boxing movies.
It's also a rejection that picking oneself up after losing isn't some Herculean accomplishment of individual grit that defines so much of sports storytelling; it's instead a product of hard work, luck, and strong support from people in your corner – for everyone profiled, overcoming the heartbreak and trauma after losing isn't a solitary effort. Aliy got the support of her fellow mushers and her beloved dogs. Michael and Jack needed all the help they could get from the tight-knit boxing and basketball communities. Their stories and the stories of everyone in this series are poignant reminders that life continues after losing and that there are some rewards greater than victory.
But, ultimately, Losers is a reminder of what makes sports so unique, and why we always come back to our favorite teams through the bad times. For those of us who aren't athletes at the top, it's a lot easier to identify with losers than champions. It's easier to place yourself in their shoes, to feel their heartbreak than it is to revel in someone else's glory. In a time and place where we're told winning is all that matters in sports and in so many other aspects of life, it's refreshing to hear from the much-maligned losers and how they learned to keep trudging forward.
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