Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Underneath the Competition, Sportsmanship Ethic Prevails ; Many Athletes Exude Ideals of Games, from Embraces in the Pool to a Fencing Timeout

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Underneath the Competition, Sportsmanship Ethic Prevails ; Many Athletes Exude Ideals of Games, from Embraces in the Pool to a Fencing Timeout

Article excerpt

By the measure of modern sports, Michael Phelps might as well be Mahatma Gandhi. In a world weaned on the headlong pursuit of home- run records and the precise choreography of touchdown dances, his gesture was almost unheard of.

Yes, he swam in the heats of the 4x100 individual medley relay, so he received a medal. But by bowing out of swimming the final round this weekend, giving his well-earned slot to a teammate, he gave up his place on the podium, a final prime-time lap in the pool, and - as it turned out - a share of a new world record.

It is the seeming miracle of the Olympiad - a two-week window when the idealistic underpinnings of the Games offer a more hopeful view of sport and humanity. In truth, the Olympics simply give the world an opportunity to turn its eyes toward what is always there.

Whether it is the camaraderie of kayakers or medieval chivalry finding a 21st-century form in fencing, the Games bring to light a sporting world that is ordinarily far beyond the American focus. It is the world of the amateur, where contracts play no part in the calculus of competition, and athletes find themselves far more united in anonymity than divided by scoreboards or stopwatches.

To be sure, the foibles and frustrations of humankind find a forum here just as they do outside the Olympic rings - in everything from judging controversies to judo boycotts. The Games are not a separation from the world, but an amplification of it. Yet no other event holds athletes to such high standards of sportsmanship, and no other event so celebrates the noble and selfless in sport.

"Nobody on the US water polo team is going for the money. They're going for the camaraderie," says John Lucas, an Olympic historian who has been to every summer Games since 1960. "There are far more patriotic and high-minded athletes than there are robber barons and drug cheats."

Hugs and handshakes

This year, Phelps has given America a glimpse into the collegial world of swimming, where each race ends not with the last stroke, but with the shower of hugs and handshakes that inevitably follow. At times, swimming can seem a perpetual graduation party without the pointy hats.

The Olympic ideal only adds to that sportsmanship. "Healthy competition, that's what the Olympic Games are all about," says Gary Hall Jr., winner of the men's 50-meter freestyle. "After the race is finished, you shake your competitor's hand. You don't see that anywhere else like you do at the Olympics."

These Games have not been without controversy, whether it's South Korea protesting a scoring error that gave the men's all-around to American gymnast Paul Hamm, or whether it's Aaron Peirsol being temporarily disqualified in the 200-meter backstroke. Yet even when Austrian officials said they would appeal the final ruling on Peirsol, which gave him the gold, silver medalist Markus Rogan said he did not support his country's protest. …

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