LONDON – Sometimes medal tallies and one-upmanship don’t matter. Sometimes flags don’t matter. Sometimes China, Hungary, Britain, Spain don’t matter. Sometimes athletes tell us what also matters. Fraternity.
See Liu Xiang fall in the hurdles and cringe. Then see Hungarian Balazs Baji raise his hand aloft and say: “I respect him. I’m really sorry. I didn’t say anything. I just couldn’t say anything.”
Then see Brit Andrew Turner, and Spaniard Jackson Quinonez carry Liu off the track, the former saying: “It was horrible to see him limp off like that, so I had to go and help him.” Then applaud.
Amid the clutter of languages at a Games, there’s still a single dialect among 205 nations. Sport itself. Greying rider and swimmer with braces speak it. We don’t. We don’t sacrifice, don’t hurt, don’t invest. For us it’s a distant spectacle, for them a personal connection. They exist to beat each other, but in this struggle there is often – not always – admiration.
British cycling rivals Victoria Pendleton and Australia’s Anna Meares train for each other, they drive each other, to be faster and to tears. And to the point where a reporter will foolishly ask Pendleton if Meares is a “cow”.
Here, in Pendleton’s London, she loses to Meares, she weeps, she embraces Meares. It is the worst possible end for her and yet the best possible reaction. And Meares will say: “Victoria showed great sportsmanship. It would have been very difficult to have been beaten in front of a home crowd. It showed the high-quality character that Victoria is.”
We like feistiness, we pump up the tribalism, we inflate rivalries. Some of it is fun and some of it puerile, but respect has its own shine. It is a code and it is worthy.
So losers have reached across lane markers in pools to kiss victors and winners have offered dignity to the defeated. When Lin Dan won badminton gold, he tweeted: “Without Lee Chong Wei, there would have been no Lin Dan.” It is sweet and it is true.
These are imperfect men, not some pillars of piety. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad of France pushed a 14-year-old girl in a mascot’s uniform earlier this year. Kenyan Ezekiel Kemboi faces trial for allegedly stabbing a woman.
Yet after the 3,000m steeplechase final, the Frenchman with silver will carry the Kenyan with gold in his arms and say: “It is a good-natured and fair war between us, I congratulate him, he is a great champion.” For this moment, he finds his best self.
The Olympics is fake war and it is why the gesture is necessary as confirmation of it. It does not always come, for bitterness lingers and insinuation arrives like a sneer. Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer, has tasted it and US hurdling medallists have resented the celebrity-fication of Lolo Jones who won nothing. In sailing, accusations of gamesmanship broke like a small wave and in judo not every opponent is ready for a hug.
Table tennis simply needs to reimagine its post-match code. Players often acknowledge the umpire first before limply touching palms with a rival. It does not imply disrespect, yet it pales in front of Juan Martin del Potro, defeated after 4hr 26min and then leaning on Roger Federer’s shoulder and weeping.
Said Federer, perfectly catching the ethos of athletes in competition: “I felt for him in a big way because I’ve been there as well.” Everyone knows the taste of losing. An athlete may be superior in London, but tomorrow is always different. It is what binds them.
Athletes come to this Games to win. It is their job, their living, their dream. Ferocity is part of the process, psychology is their weapon. They desire gold, not the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship, yet they also recognise each other’s aspirations.
When Kirani James finished his 400m semi-final with Oscar Pistorius, he asked for his race bib. Pistorius was not a challenge to him, but in a time of questioning over the legality of Pistorius’ blades, the gesture was meaningful.
Said James: “Oscar should be a huge inspiration, whether you’re a track athlete or a normal person. You can be somebody no matter what kind of disability you have.”
James was reaching out and he wasn’t alone. And when athletes do this, amid the tension, in a pursuit which is selfish by definition, they give us something precious. They remind us spirit is not just an idea, it is a living thing.
by Rohit Brijnath (At The Games)
First published in The Straits Times – August 10, 2012