What would it take to prompt the most famous person in the world to ask you for your autograph? Would you have to be the most successful person on earth? How about – the most well-known failure in America?
In 1970, Vinko Bogataj was a 22-year-old forklift driver in Lesce, Yugoslavia. He worked in a chain factory. He seemed like a typical young man. But he was also an athlete. In March, he drove to Oberstdorf, in West Germany, to take part in a competition there. He did not perform well. In fact, he performed spectacularly badly. But, as luck would have it, the American Broadcasting Corporation was taping the event. And thus it was that Bogataj’s catastrophic fall from the ski jump – he lost control just before reaching the take-off ramp, then spun off the side and bounced wildly into the crowd – came to be recorded and then used in the opening montage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports to epitomize “the agony of defeat”.
Bogataj’s crash looks horrifying, seemingly unsurvivable, which made it the perfect illustration of the agony that host Jim McKay referred to in his voiceover to the introduction to Wide World of Sports. In its heyday in the 1970s and early ‘80s, before the proliferation and popularity of cable sports networks like ESPN, the show was an American cultural phenomenon. Millions of people tuned in every weekend to see and discover an unprecedented range of sports – boxing, figure skating, cliff diving, motorcycle racing, soccer. The opening of the show was changed every year, with new graphics added and shots from more recent sporting events replacing older clips, but one thing remained constant: every week, as McKay spoke the words “the agony of defeat”, Bogataj would be shown caroming out of control down the mountainside like a rag doll. To Americans, the image was as iconic as the Hindenburg explosion.
And yet, to the rest of the world – including Vinko Bogataj – it really wasn’t that big a deal. He hadn’t been a big-name athlete in the first place – the best he’d ever done was 57th place in a ski-jumping event the year before – and, in any event, despite the ferocity of the crash, Bogataj suffered only a few bruises and a minor concussion. He continued to compete for another year or two, then retired and turned to instructing and coaching other ski jumpers, including the 1991 World Champion Franci Petek. He got married. He had two children, both girls. He still worked at the factory, and in his free time he painted landscapes. His life went on, and by all accounts, he was happy with it. Every once in a while, he’d be contacted by an American sports reporter, who would invariably ask him about the Oberstdorf crash, so he was aware that there was some kind of clip of him running on American TV. But he didn’t imagine it was anything noteworthy.
Then, in 1981, ABC hosted a gala event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Wide World of Sports. ABC invited the most popular sports stars in the world. Among them: Nadia Comaneci, the first female gymnast to score a perfect 10 in an Olympic event, winner of three golds in 1976 and two in 1980. Peggy Fleming, Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Champion figure skater. The 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team, which had won the gold medal after defeating the heavily-favored Soviet hockey team in the famous “Miracle on Ice” game. (In the clip linked to above, you can see the U.S. team celebrating as Jim McKay speaks of “the thrill of victory!”) And Muhammad Ali, 1960 Olympic boxing gold medalist and the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world, who had achieved such international renown, as a conscientious athlete who spoke his mind as few Black men of his stature had before dared, that he was literally the most well-known person on the planet.
And: Vinko Bogataj, 57th-place finisher who fell off a ski jump and liked to paint. He accepted the invitation – who wouldn’t? – and he deduced that his clip must have been actually pretty popular in the States for him to be invited. But even that insight wasn’t enough to prepare him for what happened that night. Later he would say, “When I arrived and saw how many great athletes were there and how well they greeted me, well, I had never expected such a reaction. I was shocked.” No doubt – when the emcee introduced Bogataj to the room at large, and he stood before them, smiling generously in a sharp tuxedo, the roomful of famous athletes stood too, offering him a standing ovation. (The only other standing O that night went to the U.S. Olympic hockey team. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.)
And then, Muhammad Ali, The Greatest himself, the most famous person in the world, asked Vinko Bogataj for his autograph.
Before that night, most of these people had only known the tiniest sliver of Vinko Bogataj’s life. Five seconds, to be precise – though many had probably watched those five seconds a hundred times or more. Why did these superstars applaud him so enthusiastically? A cynic might say that they were merely reacting to the celebrity, to the flashy but dehumanized image, pointing at “The Agony of Defeat Guy” the way that tourists visiting L.A. gawp when they see the HOLLYWOOD sign for the first time. But I don’t think they were cheering him because of his fall. They were cheering him because he got back up. Professional athletes know the agony of defeat as well as any of us. Even the most successful lose sometimes. They know how hard it is for any of them – even with their resources and their coaches and their entourages – to pick themselves up, shake it off, and get back in the game. To see an ordinary guy – a nobody, really – whom they had known as the personification of defeat, and who still had gone ahead in life, staying in the sport, raising a family, doing what he loved, and who was now standing before them, vital and beaming and appreciative? Even a superstar could see that this really was somebody.
More than thirty years after that gala night, Vinko Bogataj is still alive and well and living in his hometown of Lesce – part of Slovenia, now that Yugoslavia no longer exists. He’s retired now, and devotes most of his time to painting. His work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions in his home country, and internationally, in countries like Germany, Austria, and the U.S. And in 2002, for one of his works, he received the Zlata Paleta, or “Golden Palette” – the highest award given to Slovenian painters. His “agony of defeat” was dramatic but temporary. And that gold medal will be his forever.