In the past week, I watched Tobi Amusan’s races at the World Athletic Championships many times, gasping as she soared over the 10 hurdles of the 100m women’s hurdles, unflinched. 12.12 secs in the semis. 12.06secs in the finals. World record holder. World champion. I scoured through old videos of her, noting almost champion moments: 4th place in the previous season of the World Athletic Championships, 4th in the last Olympics.
I’ve seen the affirmative tweets, the persistence, and a powerful scribble she wrote: incoming world record holder.
It is now so.
What moves me most is not just the pride many Nigerians have for having the first world title in such an athletic event but Tobi’s commitment to growth despite all the disappointment and challenges athletes typically face.
More intriguing for me, however, is the media attention and fanfare, which though well deserved, pedestals champions so much that it’s easy to become obsessed with overachievement, to have little eyes for people wading through the dark but almost at the “top,” whatever that is. To put more forthrightly, silver medalists do not get as many headlines as gold medalists even if the difference is nothing but 0.02 seconds. Commentators spend more time gloating over the champion.
What makes a world champion?
Beyond Ese Brume and Tobi Amusan making Nigeria proud, the athletic championships struck cords with my penchant for high achievement, and no, I’m not a motivational speaker. I’m not here to spur you to anything. If you give up, it’s your loss. As I write this, I’m a little over the place, and I can begin to see myself questioning what I achieved by writing this in the nearest future.
That, exactly, is the point. Does it always have to be about achievement? If external recognition is a success metric, what do we do before the visibility of limelights and the pressurizing expectations that may follow them? Get suffocated by demands and routines and disappointments? How do we know we’re doing good without an external yardstick? What are we doing with our lives when we fumble about, barely figuring anything out?
Do we even have to be achievers? Achievement is hardly purposeful if the sheen of recognition is the end goal in my opinion, because that could fade. One could be the artiste with the major hit today and be extinct soon. One could be almost at the peak, and just suddenly flop. A former 100m hurdles World Champion hit a hurdle at the 2022 World Championship and could not defend her title.
I used to be obsessed with overachieving but now, like Tobi said in an interview, I just want to “execute” – this is perhaps too broad a viewpoint to not offer a definite detail, but hopefully, you get the logic.
Once, in high school, I was mad at being second overall, because it felt like an “almost” achievement, but not quite the peak.
I wanted to be the first, to have the “crown,” which in retrospect, was rather obsessive. I’d tried sports and was so wack, I doubted I could be on any athletic team. Good athletes were cool and popular, at least socially. In high school, I was certainly not the cool athletic kid and in those early teenage years, I was not one to easily succumb to peer pressure, but I did want to be cool. I hated mediocrity. Aside from dark satire, I could not be remembered for jokes because I was not really funny. I was not super outgoing except I was up for a debate and was too coolheaded to be a fighter. I rarely got attention until it came. And I was not seeking attention, I was seeking remarkability, unconventionality. I wanted to be somebody, not just anybody. And since I was doing fair academically, I decided I’d choose books.
It worked fine for the most part. In my secondary school, if you were one of the best three in your set, there was a stars list at the end of midterms or the term. Prize-giving day was held at the end of the session, but before then, you could be a midterm star or a terminal star, and by being on the academic star’s list, you’d have your name called out and you’d also go out for a “star lunch”.
This actually helped to grow a sense of reward and consistency, but I soon got bored of star lunches, especially when we went to restaurants we’d previously been, accompanied by the same teacher. Soon, I was no more always a “star.” I did miss out on some occasions but caught up at the end of the year and won prizes on prize-giving day. Later on, changes were made – the list extended to athletic stars and national champions – people who had earned the school remarkable external accolades.
I then wanted to be a national champion, then a world champion. And I soon knew early on how to say no, or get swamped. I could not know or have everything, or win all the laurels on the ladder of achievement. My goal then began to shift but I still kept an achievement board, where I kept a record of my achievements so far and what I hoped to attain next, which is good really, as long as the goal is not a toxic glorification of achievements, because if the dream is just to achieve, then after that, what next? A higher achievement? One day, one could have accumulated leverage and retire or get complacent and bored. What’d the sense of meaning be then? One day, one could fail or be so close to a peak, and the disappointment would hurt because too much energy was fixated on setting records rather than executions and processes.
I did get the best overall award at some point, and it really was no different from earlier accolades, except that certain teachers seemed to privilege it as now being the “best,’ which was ridiculous because I had been my best before being called best. First or second place remained external, while the” best” was pretty innate.
Measuring success can be skewered. I remember once setting a record of a 99.67% average in a subject and I recall thinking, ugh, 100 in first term, 100 in second term, 99 in third term, why on earth did I not just perfect the perfection? I had never seen anyone graduate from my secondary school with a perfect score and I wondered how I had left myself miss such a chance. Now, much older, I think my teachers made me more meticulous, but I definitely grew to know that more things mattered than overachievement.
Speaking of teachers and fighting for prizes, my final year of secondary school was the most intense for prize-aiming students because there was no class rank on mock exam reports. While that benefited many students as it had them focused on preparing for national pre-university exams rather than obsessions with class ranks, it made prize-aiming students edgy. The mocks were used for determining the best graduating students and it wasn’t official who the best graduating students were until the day of graduation, except maybe the overall valedictorian, who often got a short notice to prepare a speech. Valedictorians sometimes cried upon being confirmed as the winners of the crown. Shockers also sometimes occurred because the criteria was more than just A’s and GPAs: one had to be first in the highest number of subjects that year to be valedictorian.
While people not obsessed with achievement took their report cards with letter grades, brilliant folks tried to predict how many first prizes they could get. It created fierce competition because valedictorians somewhat had more honor than previous half-in-the-journey recognitions of midterm stars and whatever. If you were valedictorian, you had a standing ovation, a speech to give, a garland, a plaque, a wrapped grand prize, money, or a bunch of external donor scholarships that didn’t typically come on previous prizegiving days. So intense was the “battle” that I decided I was not going to aim being the valedictorian, because I’d seen people who were not valedictorians do better in external exams.
I did not graduate valedictorian but did fine enough to move on with life, but I still hoped to be a world champion, a cool somebody. Now, most recently I did a professional interview where I was asked what achievements I was most proud of, and I remember thinking, why does it have to be about achievements? If I weren’t qualified, I wouldn’t be doing this interview, would I? Which one do I mention?
I did have fairly remarkable achievements to share but what if I didn’t? Someone read an interview on my writing life in which I talk about rejections and more, the process behind my front page New York Times column and other backstories, and deemed me “wise,” sure to “go far” in the literary world but I take it with a pinch of salt.
“What’s next ?” might be well-meaning but it can also be too much. What if we know but don’t know?
Speaking of achieving writers: there is a very brilliant Nigerian emerging writer (whatever emerging means) I finally saw when I went home, Ernest Ogunyemi. He is a visiting teaching artist at Poetry Foundation, home to arguably America’s (and the world’s) largest poetry foundation, where he’s teaching a workshop this summer. I adore him not just for his achievements but his humility and growth, the syntactical brilliance of his writing, the delicate sensibility of his oeuvre, his acuity of expression and candidness with the weight of grief and yearning, and the inherent seamlessness. A bright man of language locked in language, his art warms my heart.
Also, there’s Joshua Chizoma, a Caine Prize shortlistee who went to a whole London and dined with African literary stars. Read Collector of Memories if you haven’t!
There are so many people writing, so many people running, so many achievers. Is there really a world champion? Records break, and transitions occur.
Speaking of occurrences, I wish you the best of executions even when there is no crown.