In this current age, competition seems increasingly out of fashion as the old binary of winning and losing (like male and female) has been deemed, by some, to be fundamentally unsound. Winners evidently create losers, and somehow competition evokes separation and elitism.
Along that same arc, there are moments in Olympic lore that reflect the quality of sportsmanship that defines the Olympic movement as envisioned by the founder of the modern Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
In Rio 2016, it was America’s Abby D’Agostino helping New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin up after both tumbled to the track after clipping heels in the 5000m, Abby saying to Nikki, “Get up. We have to finish this.”
Then, when it became obvious that D’Agostino was hurt, it was Hamblin who offered the American support and encouragement rather than running ahead.
For many, the men’s high jump final has been the most heartwarming story yet in the Tokyo Games of 2021.
After Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi cleared every bar all the way through 2.37 meters, both failed to clear 2.39m on all three attempts, thereby leaving them tied. After discussing their options with an official, both agreed to share the Olympic gold medal rather than extend the competition in a jump off, as is the usual protocol.
Yes, it was a touching moment, as the two have been friends since 2010 and have seen one another through good times and bad.
But isn’t true sportsmanship encouraging your opponent/friend to do his best, rather than encouraging him not to compete – and yet still get all the glory? As Abby D’Agostino said five years ago, “we have to finish this thing.”
Seeing the women long jump finalists encouraging one another on their sixth round jumps when all the medals were still up for grabs; watching the women gymnasts hugging their opponents following their rival’s routines when entire careers were on the line; and perhaps most famously, hearing how Germany’s Lutz Long suggested to America’s Jesse Owens that he move his starting mark back a few inches in the Olympic long jump in Berlin 1936 so Owens wouldn’t foul out of the competition – and thereby possibly costing Long a gold medal on home soil – those are examples of sportsmanship at the highest, Olympic level.
It’s not quite the same as saying “Can we have two golds?” as Barshim did when asked whether he would rather share a gold medal or go through a jump off with his Italian friend.
Yes, the old friends were happy for one another and the emotion of the moment touched us all, especially in these polarizing times. But isn’t the Olympics also about fair competition in an honorable setting? Why weren’t there seven bronze medals given out in the men’s singles golf competition? That’s how many men finished the 72-hole competition at 15-under par. Why did they have a playoff to determine the single bronze medal recipient? Why give out medals at all?
If Barshim and Tamberi wanted to tie, what would they have done if they were told it would be for equal silver medals, with the gold left open because they chose not to compete for it? Think they would’ve jumped at that option?
In any case, how was it their choice, anyway? Do we ask students whether they want to take final exams if you’re just going to give them an A grade just the same?
Yes, sportsmanship and participation are wonderful parts of the Olympic movement. In fact, the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius, was slightly altered this year by IOC President Thomas Bach to include “Faster, Higher, Stronger….Together,” after a year when the world was kept far, far apart by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Olympics themselves were postponed.
But competition is just as honorable, too, like with Warholm v. Benjamin and McLaughlin v. Muhammad in the 400m hurdles. So let’s not confuse sportsmanship with soft landings and easy wins. BTW, I’m happy for both men.