Integrity in sports: we can still find it if we look…

We just need to walk down to the local park on any summer evening and experience the good and not-so-good about sports.  On the plus side, it’s a tremendous feeling when we see kids simply having fun, youngsters with talent and drive, young people playing just because they love their sport. We often see developing athletes full of determination while displaying positive attitudes as they work with selfless and supportive coaches/adults.

That speaks to the some of best of what sports can bring out in us.

Sometimes, though, we see the flip side of that discussion too—where, sadly, kids mimic some adults and professionals. In those instances we might witness a lack of sportsmanship or young athletes abusing game officials. We may see adult coaches acting in ways they never would in any other environment. At times we watch parents scream from the sidelines. Together, these aforementioned behaviours diminish what should be a great opportunity for kids to play, learn and grow.

In those moments, that opportunity is lost.

The Olympics, where many examples for impressionable young people are set, typically bring out the best and worst in sporting attitudes as well.  One example of the not-so-good? The recently concluded Games in Brazil saw a high-profile soccer star, Hope Solo, (after a loss) reportedly call the other team “cowards”—not because they played dirty, but simply because of their style of play In beating Solo’s American side.  The comments were seemingly uncalled for—and sounded like sour grapes. That was a case where a less-than-stellar example of sportsmanship was set for young athletes around the world.

The truth is it’s hard to “lose” in sports, and it’s maybe even harder for a competitive person to lose with grace. Like the rest of us, great athletes will sometimes fall short in terms of our expectations in terms of their attitude or behaviour. But surely losing with class and grace in sports is still a laudable goal.

With that in mind, I was more focused on the hopeful side of this discussion while following some of the storylines from the Rio Games.  In this regard two moments stood out for me—moments where I had the sense that these particular athletes “get it”, to use that expression. 

One situation was when two runners collided in the women’s 5000-meter event. After the collision, Abbey D’Agostino of the United States actually helped her opponent (Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand) get up and made sure Hamblin finished the race.

Athletes train for years just for the opportunity to get to an Olympics. They strive, if not for a medal necessarily, to challenge themselves, perhaps to at least set a “personal best” time. In this instance, whatever dreams she had going into the race, D’Agostino set all that aside and instinctively helped someone else out in a moment of personal crisis. Hamblin was clearly touched by this display of sportsmanship.  Hamblin was quoted afterward as saying, “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there…being young she is going to have so many more opportunities… and being such a good human being, she’s going to go far”.

It’s evident that Hamblin was not just talking about D’Agostino’s future in sports, but about her qualities as a person.

The other moment that stayed with me was when two other runners (in the men’s 50K walk) also became entangled. A post-race protest first gave the medal to Canadian Evan Dunfee; then it was returned to Hirooki Arai of Japan after a second protest.

The Canadian had an opportunity to have his Federation file a further appeal, but he decided to forego that option. By all accounts Dunfee is an extremely competitive athlete, not shy to stand up for what he believes.  But he made a decision not to fight the matter any further, saying that the “right decision stood”. He said that contact is part of the event, and there was no intent or maliciousness involved.

Said Dunfee, “I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.”

Maybe he would have lost the final protest anyway. But given what was at stake, that nonetheless stands as a rather remarkable statement (and decision) to make, given a world where winning—and the glory, endorsements and money that goes with it—sometimes seems to be all that matters.

In a lot of ways ways the pursuit of “winning” does matter, of course, as athletes get older and especially at the professional level.  Yet winning is rarely ever the full story in sports, though those of us on the outside often do indeed make blanket assessments of individuals and teams based on outcomes. However so many factors, including luck, go into any final result. With that in mind, we should often pause and take a broader perspective before we make those kind of laudatory/condemnatory assessments about individuals and teams.

Often, we (media, “fans” and those who follow sports so passionately) succumb too easily to the urge to pigeon-hole athletes: this one is a “winner”, that one isn’t.  Athletes are heroes if they win, and are often unfairly maligned when they fall short. We shower winners with non-stop attention—often too much so.

All that said, how an individual handles success, or “failure” if we can call it that, often speaks as loudly as a win or a loss.

Because society offers that adulation and all those accolades to perceived winners, it is maybe even more difficult for highly-skilled, competitive athletes to act in a positive manner and do what is, essentially, the right thing when things go off the rails—like D’Agostino and Dunfee did.

It’s possible that by their actions they both did something that may actually be more impactful (in one sense, at least) than if they had won their events.

There were other examples of great sportsmanship at the Games (and still others showing a lack thereof) but for me, D’Agostino and Dunfee provided two highlights in this area. What they said and did spoke to the good in people, the human spirit. They were declarations of a sort—that winning is not, alas, always everything.

If that message and their examples connected with even a few young people around the world as a result of watching these Olympics, that would surely be a good thing. It doesn't mean that those youngsters shouldn’t—if they have the desire, passion and talent, too—do all they can to “win” someday themselves.

But hopefully they will also know that they can be be respected, embraced and appreciated for doing the right things in life and for having integrity, even if they sometimes “lose”.