Rivalry is a relationship served with a side of bitters. Fans and coaches were shocked by 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ failure to not only beat his rival Ryan Lochte in the 400 meter race, but to qualify for any medal, upending expectations and triggering analysis among both the passionate and the professional sports-writing class. “There went all the prepared columns, all the readied story lines,” writes Filip Bondy in the New York Daily News. “Suddenly, we had to deal with this new guy, Ryan Lochte, who wasn’t really new at all but was always a vague shadow in the background, a six-time Olympic medalist we’d ignored now for eight years.” Lochte was as astonished as anyone. “I think I’m kind of in shock right now,” as reported on ESPN. With regard to Phelps he commented “I know he gave it everything he had. That’s all you can ask for.”
Competitors nipping at the heels of whoever is currently number one can fuel an athlete’s fire to train and prepare, whether channeled through desire to hold onto the top position or dread of losing at all, to anyone. In this way, rivalries can bring out the best on both sides. Phelps raises Lochte’s game, considering that Phelps had not lost a race in seven years. But for Phelps, the rivalry might be more with his own legacy than with another human capable of super-human performance. While he had openly debated whether to come back for a final Olympic go-round,” he decided he didn’t want to look back and wonder what he might have done,” writes David Whitley on the website Sporting News. “The easiest thing would have been to retire as the all-time Olympic swimming god.” This, of course, made his poor showing that much more jaw-dropping to a collective, worldwide, transfixed audience. “Phelphs didn’t just lose,” Whitley writes, “it felt as if you were watching Mary Lou fall off the balance beam or Jesse Owens pull up lame.” And in this very-human reality of both actualized potential and agonized defeat, the rest of us can relate.
There is equally as much rivalry in relationships as in athletic competitions, and it is potent a motivating force that shapes choices as well as their consequences. “A student may be particularly motivated to outperform certain peers; an academic may closely monitor the citation counts of certain other scholars,” write authors of a study investigating rivalry. “In the business world, rivalry may be especially common. Within firms, employees who find themselves repeatedly competing for bonuses or promotions may come to see one another as rivals in the race for career advancement.” This study reports that rivalry is relationally-driven. That “it exists in the minds of competitors.” That while the experience may be tinged with less-than-positive emotions toward a person we perceive as a rival, we are more likely to compete with individuals we see as being similar to us. The boost in motivation and increased performance on effort-based tasks makes rivalry something worth examination. We can use it as energy to advance, as an external marker that triggers an internal “push.”
There is more to the story about the Phelps/Lochte rivalry. As we watch, fascinated, as history plays out over these Olympic games we might see ourselves in one of those heroes. Producing a game-changing victory against a seemingly unbeatable rival. Blowing past our own personal best. Or reflecting on a loss with insight and self-acceptance rather than wondering what might have been.