Wednesday, August 20, 2008

why i love the Olympics (part 3: sportsmanship)

the world is full of obnoxious personalities. disrespectful. uncaring. cruel. sadistic. venal, vindictive, self-serving, selfish. they're everywhere. sometimes disguised beneath veneers of kindness, sometimes open, but always common. spreading poison and adding suffering to others around them...especially the innocent.

so often it seems these personalities are rewarded. their behavior encouraged. given the blessings of love and adoration and fame and fortune and joy and bliss, even as their venom leaves their victims to struggle in the wreckage left by their brutality.

we've all seen it. we've all known it. we've all suffered from it. from them.

and been left wondering if this is all there is to human behavior, if this is how humanity is supposed to truly treat one another. if this is really the state of the world.

which is why i love the Olympics.

anyone watching the swimming events at the Olympics this past Saturday, August 16, got to observe an interesting situation on the pool deck in the Water Cube. it was caught on television and given considerable discussion by television commentators, who seemed just as confused as the spectators since events were unfolding live in real-time. there was little mention given to it in the print media, but you can read the following to get an idea:
i've included the full text of the 1st article below, in case none of the links work.

essentially, this is what happened:

prior to the start of the semifinals for the women's 50m freestyle, the television cameras showed Dara Torres breaking away from the starting block and approaching the swimming officials to commence a brief exchange of words. she then spoke with the assembled swimmers on the pool deck, and seemed to have all the competitors stop and delay the race.

after several minutes of confusion, the reason for Dara's actions became evident. apparently, a Swedish competitor, Therese Alshammar, had discovered her swimsuit was broken just moments before swimmers were supposed to enter the starting blocks, and had been forced to find and put on a replacement suit. Dara had been trying to help Therese--who incidentally is one of the better 50m freestyle swimmers in the world and one of Dara's main competitors--but on seeing that the zipper was beyond repair, she decided to hold up the race to allow Therese to get into another suit.

Dara first approached the swimming officials for extra time, who granted her request for a few minutes' delay. to insure that there was no premature start, Dara then held an ad hoc discussion with all the swimmers to organize an impromptu group sit-in to wait for Therese, even going so far as to tell Casey Campbell, Australia's 16-year-old entrant, to "chill out" until Therese could get to the starting blocks.

this was probably one of the more unique expressions of sportsmanship i've ever seen at any athletic event. and it was probably one of the more selfless things i've ever seen done at a high-stakes, high-pressure competition.

normally, competitors are held responsible for themselves to be ready for a race start. the risk of not being ready is to simply have the race start without you, and to be thereby disqualified. as a result, other athletes actually benefit from 1 person not making it to the race start--especially if it means eliminating a main competitor, and especially if it's in a major event like the Olympics. i'm sure this was a potential scenario that could have been played out in Therese Alshammar's case.

but the fact that Dara Torres had the presence of mind to look out for another competitor, even in a high-pressure environment like the Olympics, and particularly for a competitor who promised to be a main rival, speaks volumes about her character. and the fact that she then took upon herself the duty to act to see that the situation was resolved only adds to it.

this entire display serves as a reminder about sportsmanship, and just what that word really means.

had Therese been disqualified, it would have meant that all the present athletes had taken advantage of a fellow competitor's misfortune. the situation would have been a tragic one for her and for her country of Sweden, a distraction for the swimming venue in Beijing, and a source of unresolved conflicts with open questions as to who really was the best swimmer deserving of the finals and just how the competitions rules treated competitors fairly or unfairly. in essence, it would have only served to degrade the entire sport and the Olympic spirit, and their aspirations to better human ideals.

however, by seeking to help Therese, and making sure she made the start of the women's 50m freestyle qualifier, Dara fixed everything. she stopped the exploitation of another's misfortune, and in doing so prevented a tragic outcome, nipped a potential for a major Olympic distraction, left the question of athleticism to competition on the field of play (where it's supposed to be), and rendered moot any debate over the fairness of rules. she upheld the dignity of the sport and the Olympics, and preserved their goals of advancing human ideals...that, and, perhaps more importantly, she also made a better friend.

this story shows how things like respect and courtesy and compassion and kindness really do make a difference. without them, there's nothing but brutality and chaos, and a resulting propagation of suffering that only serves to denigrate the human condition. with them, there's dignity and order, and a liberation of the spirit that frees people to discover the greater truths of human existence.

because things are bad enough without adding to the misery that's already in the world. things are bad enough without adding to the suffering with obnoxious or cruel or sadistic or selfish behavior.

what the world needs is something--and someone(s)--that makes things better. and that something, and someone(s) begins with us. each of us. each of us involved in the great race of life. with the presence of mind to look out for others, and taking upon ourselves the duty to act to see things resolved.

respect. and courtesy. and compassion. and kindness.

so that our actions become our character, and our character becomes our life, and our life becomes an expression of ideals made real...ideals of all that which is virtue, and a reflection of the more noble aspects of the human spirit.

so that we may realize the greater truths of existence, and make manifest those truths in ourselves, in each other, and in human life.

and thereby justify the act of living.

Torres is fastest qualifier in 50 free, confirms she will anchor relay
BEIJING — Dara Torres is doubling up her duties in her run at history on Sunday.

In addition to seeking her 11th Olympic medal in the finals of the 50-meter freestyle, the 41-year-old mom confirmed Saturday she will swim the anchor leg of the women's 4x100 medley relay about 40 minutes later.

A double medal performance would tie Torres with Jenny Thompson as the most decorated U.S. woman swimmer in history, with 12. She already is the oldest female swimmer in Olympic history.

Torres won the 100 freestyle at the U.S. trials but elected not to swim the individual event in Beijing to concentrate on the 50 free and the 4x100 free relay, which she anchored for a silver medal.

Natalie Coughlin won a bronze medal in the 100 free Friday, but she is swimming her strongest stroke, the 100 backstroke, in the relay.

Torres was the fastest qualifier in the semifinal heats of the 50 free Saturday, cruising in a time of 24.27 seconds. Sixteen-year-old Cate Campbell of Australia will be in the next lane, having qualified second in 24.42.

Torres disappeared from the starting area just before the semifinal, doing something any mother would do — helping a youngster with her suit.

Therese Alshammar of Sweden was late to the pool deck because her suit ripped in the ready room and Torres lent a hand.

"Therese's suit ripped when we were getting ready to walk out. … We got it up and it ripped again," Torres said. "I saw her not march out and I just went over to the ref and said, 'Can you wait because there's a girl whose suit just ripped?' They said they would try to delay it and I was telling the other girls so they wouldn't be ready to go and be all nervous."

Alshammar failed to qualify for the finals. Kara Lynn Joyce of the U.S. qualified seventh.

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