One week in and I am enjoying these Winter Games. Plenty of exciting moments! (Warning: clear US bias in what follows)
There have been some disappointing moments for many heralded US athletes. Shaun White, Shani Davis, Bode Miller all failed to medal in events in which they were expected to medal (even win Gold). Hannah Kearney won a bronze in the moguls but she was clearly gunning for Gold. What I found heartening about all these cases was although these athletes were visibly dissatisfied with their results, they demonstrated great sportsmanship. In each case, the athlete congratulated and in many cases hugged the winning athletes. These moments seemed to be quite sincere. Each knew they had been bested on this day and acknowledged their competitor’s victory.
Olympics athletes work their whole lives often for one moment, one chance to medal. This is a tremendous investment of one’s resources, efforts, time, and emotion. The moment comes and for many it doesn’t pan out as they hoped. The pain, sadness, frustration, and disappointment, I have to guess, are unimaginable. And yet, most of these athletes face these moments with grace and honor, as White, Davis, Miller, and Kearney did.
Other positive examples that come to mind are figure skaters Jeremy Abbott and Evgeni Plushenko. Abbott took a devastating fall in his short program. Lying on the ice for several seconds, everyone assumed that his performance was done. Abbott got up, however, and finished his routine in excellent fashion. Plushenko aggravated a back injury during warm-ups. The Russian gold medalist realized he was not going to be able to compete and told the official he was withdrawing. Though in obvious pain (physically and emotionally), Plushenko handled this unfortunate moment with grace. He acknowledged the audience and took his final Olympic bow.
This is the core of what sportsmanship is: the virtuous balance and control of one’s emotion and action in challenging conditions. Whether in the middle of game or at the conclusion, whether the victor or the defeated, the individual who displays good sportsmanship is one maintains the appropriate balance and control of him or herself.
This doesn’t mean the absence of emotion. Hannah Kearney was near tears, but I don’t think that is inappropriate or bad sportsmanship in the least. Her emotion and tears are appropriate for the context (in the mix here is that she is retiring after these games). Similarly with Plushenko, the visible disappointment at not being able to compete one last time for an Olympic medal is entirely appropriate for the moment. The ability to maintain both the honest expression of one’s disappointment and the composure of a professional is what is so admirable about the sportsmanship of these athletes.