Sportsmanship: The good, bad, and hateful

There have been many great examples of good sportsmanship at the Rio Olympics. USA gymnastic teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman cheering each other on even as they compete against each other. USA’s Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin helping each other finish a race after colliding in a 5000 meter qualifier. Galen Rupp falling back from the pack in the 10,000 meter to check on Mo Farah after accidentally tripping him. Athletes throughout the games, winning or losing, acknowledging each other and the crowd.

There have been some bad examples too. Two stands out: USWNT goalie Hope Solo’s unfortunate comments after losing to Sweden and French sprinter Wilhem Belocian ripping his bid off in disgust after being disqualified for a false start. I understand both Solo and Belocian’s frustration and can easily see myself being overcome by disappointment or anger and responding as they did. These were not their best moments. Poor sportsmanship for sure, but these actions speak more to being overcome in the moment by emotions not necessarily to deeper character flaws.

But there were a few other examples of bad sportsmanship that fall under a different heading and require a different kind of analysis:

These sorts of actions regarding Israel are nothing new. Even just prior to the Olympics, Syrian boxer Ala Ghasoun refused to participate in an Olympic qualifying event in June against an Israeli. Similar refusals happened in the London, Beijing, and Athens Games.

While there are examples of bad sportsmanship no matter the event, at the Olympics where the philosophical basis and purpose is fundamentally about peace, these examples are especially egregious.

There are real problems and conflicts in the Middle East. There is a lot of violence and fighting and killing. This ought not to be denied, hidden, or ignored. Israel and her relationship to her Arab and Muslim neighbors, citizens, and residents is a complicated, complex issue on which rational people can and do strongly disagree. There are dangerous and violent conflicts all over the world.

But the point of the Olympics is to find a space beyond all this. The crazy idea is that we take a break from real life—a life where unfortunately conflict and violence might still rule–to play games, to watch humans excel and compete at the highest levels of ability and talent.

Here are two quotes from the Olympic Charter on the Fundamental Principles of Olympism.

  • “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
  • “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Olympism and the Olympic spirit calls for people to step outside their normal routine and see that there is a possibility of peace, a possibility of mutual understanding and prosperity. As Heather Reid writes “Playing sports together seems to humanize ‘the other,’ by overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers and demanding mutual respect”(1) Through sport, where individuals must cooperate to compete under a set of rules and norms, people can come to see that cooperation, respect, understanding, and dignity are indeed possible—even with people you are ‘supposed’ to hate.

It is this explicit hope and spirit of peace that makes the Olympics different from World Championships or the World Cup. This is not just another event on one’s pro tour. Its specialness comes from the underlying philosophy of Olympism and its explicit call for peace and mutual respect among and between nations and individuals.

It is this that the Lebanese delegation, the Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian violated. Their lack of sportsmanship is a denial of the very purpose of the Olympics. It doesn’t merely reflect poor judgment or an overflow of angry disappointment. It is rooted in hate and antisemitism. It is a refusal to even consider the possibility of peace and mutual respect. There is no more un-Olympic way to be.


(1) Heather Reid, “Defining Olympic Sport,” in Defining Sport, ed. Shawn E. Klein (Maryland: Lexington,  Forthcoming December 2016).
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