The art of failure

Art of Failure

The shot-putt and discus events were by their very nature, far less appealing than the javelin. Most frustratingly, the school only had so many javelins, and we were expected to try out each discipline, having of course been shown – in a full thirty second bursts of demonstration by our variously and permanently injured coaches – the correct technique for each. They all looked easy. I’d watched the Olympics on television and I was, I thought, probably a natural athlete.

Rather than have a stampede for the deadly weapons, Mr. Davies split us into groups for each event. To my great joy, I was in the first group to hurl the spears/javelinsacross the field. We each picked a javelin and stood in a line, pretending to spear one another and being yelled at by the teacher for doing so. The first obstacle I faced was that the darned thing was so much longer than me. This made it unwieldy, to say the least. The nextproblem was that there seemed to be no comfortable way to get a hold of it. Despite being irritably shown again how to grip the beast, it quickly became clear that my hand or wrist didn’t bend in the requisite manner.As the difficulties mounted, the task began to grow less and less fun-like, and I began to worry about the likelihood of spearing myself in the back of the head. Instinctively, Ifelt it was physically impossible, but that didn’t stop me worrying about it.Other anxieties included tripping, falling and somehow running myself through to die a noble but painful death from a mediaeval battlefield injury. On television, it had all looked sosimple.

I watched as my fellow group members took their first throws of the mighty spears. I smiled smugly as their javelins, aerodynamically perfect and balanced beautifully, either flew fully twelve feet and after describing  a near perfect parabola, landed vertically with the point in the ground , or else fell flat upon the grass with a nasty ‘clang’ sound and slid along threateningly. Watching such failures, I sensed the strength coursing through my body as I tested the unfamiliar object in my hand, could almost hear the roar of the crowd as my javelin flew for previously unimagined distances, and then, as I stepped forward to take my turn…all this unfounded confidence utterly evaporated. Suddenly, I felt very exposed. At the same time, I realized that I had never before tried to run while carrying a deadly weapon out to one side of my body. It was only a few paces, but still…

I took a deep breath and tried to hold the thing properly.  In my mind I held the image of the Olympic athletes that I’d watched on television, bounding up to the line and launching their missiles with extraordinary power, grace and a mighty roar. I set off on my short run, skipped, almost tripped and bounded towards an invisible point on the ground before letting loose with a yell. Witnesses would later describe a noise not unlike a dog’s squeaky toy being stepped upon as I hurled my projectile almost straight up into the air. I’d lost my grip at the very worst moment. Had the missile travelled any appreciable distance from the earth’s crust, someone might have shouteda warning, but in the absence of any time to do so, all they could do was watch as my javelin headed upwards a little, and immediately dropped straight back down – missing me by a hair’s breadth – to land point upwards, its tail stuck in the soft turf at almost exactly the spot from which I’d thrown it.I looked around to make sure nobody had filmed it, but thankfully, cell phones were far, far away in our futures..

Taking the most positive view of these events, I had succeeded in two ways. Firstly, I had managed to achieve the javelin equivalent of belching, farting and coughing all at the very same moment, and secondly, I had reduced Mr. Davies to speechless shock (for which, incidentally, nobody has ever thanked me). Unable to find a fitting insult, he stared at me briefly through his bottle-bottom glasses, looked at the javelin for a few seconds, and then back to me. He opened his mouth as if to say something but thought better of it. The laughter of my classmates would have drowned him out, anyway. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he turned away to supervise theless perilous throwing of  cannon balls and small wooden, metal-rimmed flying saucers…