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An Olympic Effort

As we wandered through the Olympic park in yesterday's afternoon sunshine (I know, awesome, right?) the other half and I were stopped by a man from a US radio station. He asked us the following question:

"The US basketball team beat Nigeria by 83 points last night do you think that was in the spirit of the Olympics?"

My very kind, polite and infinitely fair other half said, "Well, you never want to humiliate anyone, but I think you still have to play your best."

How balanced, how fair, how well-spoken on the fly. I, on the other hand, blurted out, "Well, it's better than not trying at badminton."

So what does it mean to embody the Olympic spirit? Do tactics have a place? Does mercy? With the benefit of a little time to think it over, I think I have some slightly less flippant thoughts on the matter today.

Olympic flame, symbol of all that the games represent...and hidden in the stadium
On Wednesday, eight badminton players were disqualified from the Olympics for trying to throw their games. When I initially heard the news reports, I assumed that they did it for the usual reasons. You know, illegal gambling, Black Sox style. But, no, the Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian teams tried to lose so that they would have a better match-up in the next round.

Apparently, it was a horrific scene with the elite athletes deliberately serving into the net, hitting shots wide and not even trying to return the shuttlecock all to the background of an increasingly angry, disappointed and booing crowd. I completely understand the anger of the crowd, especially with the high price of the tickets that have been very difficult to come by. They wanted to see the athletes at their best. But does failing to do that mean that the athletes ought to be disqualified? If so, what is the minimum amount of effort required?

It's easy to attack these eight women because they didn't fail to try their best, they actually tried to do their worst, but where do we draw that line? Only the night before a British swimmer (whose name escapes me now, but feel free to fill it in) said to the BBC that her coach had told her to swim slower than her best in the semifinals so that she would get an outside lane. Does she deserve to be disqualified? I just watched Usain Bolt run what was certainly slower than his best in the 100m heats. The swimmer wanted a particular lane, Bolt is conserving his energy for later rounds and the badminton women wanted to face (or not face) particular teams. Where is the line?
Men's steeplechase. Should the guy at the front be waiting?

Perhaps you don't need to try your hardest all the time, but you do have to try. I would argue that athletes absolutely have to keep the bigger goal in mind, but that good sportsmanship (and sportswomanship) require them to strive for excellence. That excellence might well be of different gradations, but it is the means that matter, not the end. In other words, it's how you play the game, not whether you win that matters. The badminton athletes weren't even playing.

If we make that claim, however, we must extend it to the other extreme: winning. So should the US have eased up when they were 30 points ahead of Nigeria? 50 points? 80 points? No, of course not. No one says that Michael Phelps really ought to slow down a bit in the pool or that Bolt should only run 0.05 seconds faster than the next guy because it's really not nice to other competitors. Right now, Jessica Ennis is busy crushing the heptathlon. With one event to go this evening, she already has what the commentators are classing an unassailable lead. Claire Balding of the BBC said that she has been told by experts that "all Jessica needs to do is show up tonight" in order to win the gold medal. Should she run slowly to make it more of a competition?

No way. We all want to see her kill it. We want to see her break another world record, like she did yesterday morning in the 100m hurdles. I was there, and I can tell you that, even though I'm not a GB fan per se, it was fantastic, amazing, brilliant to see her do it. That's what the Olympics are about. They are about people pushing their athletic abilites to the limits as the rest of us make empty promises to ourselves about really taking up waterpolo next week - it looks like a great workout - or at least running, well, jogging, fine a brisk walk every now and then.

I say to the US men's basketball team: Congratulations. You guys all do this for a living. You've dedicated your lives to it. And, in the case of the US and Canada, you're taking time out to participate in a competition that is nowhere near as lucrative as your regular season. You risk injury to participate in a fantastic competition every four years that is not just about winning.

I don't believe that condescension has any place in fair competition. I suspect that the Nigerian team would have taken offense had the US team offered to step aside and not play defense for a while, or deliberately started missing shots. Humiliation is knowing that you weren't worth your opponent's full effort. Pride is knowing you did the best you could against the best your opponent had to offer. We should not be talking about whether the US was right to win by 83 points, we should be talking about the game itself. It was a record breaking win - well done, US! And Nigeria scored 73 points - that's a very respectable score. Sounds to me they had a damn good offense to get that many points against a competitor like the US.

So play on Olympic competitors. Play hard. Play fast. Play your best. It really is about how you play the game. Make sure you play it so that you can hold your head high afterward and say you did right by yourself, your country and your fans. There are only three medals in each event, but it doesn't mean that no one else ought to compete.


  1. PS: If you're interested in a more in-depth look at philosophy at the Olympics. Check out this fantastic vlog from Philosophy Now, Please.


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