Sportsmanship vs. Competition

Now I can’t even remember how I stumbled across it, but this article has really stayed with me.

“Sportsmanship at its best: Rustay helps Shine finish” is an account of a high school girls’ cross country race. There’s little about it that’s monumental, other than the fact that one runner helped another after the latter had fallen near the finish line.

The comments,  tweets, and news coverage itself is a glowing love-fest for the sportsmanship of the girl who stopped running to help her competitor.

My first reaction, as an athlete, and a competitive person by nature, was that we are rewarding the wrong thing. There is a way to be courteous, respectful, and even kind to an opponent, while still never allowing them to gain advantage. But to help an opponent so close to the finish line at such an important event seems to me like athletic suicide.

I come from soccer, where, unpleasant as it sounds, cheating is part of the game. You learn to step on her foot as she’s trying to jump, pull her jersey when the ref’s back is turned. Professionals dive for a foul at the slightest push, clutching their aching heads, shins, or ankles in agony, which always heals seconds after drawing a  call. The field becomes a land governed only by the tenet Win At All Costs.

So I talked to some equally competitive friends who have a much more profound understanding of and  love for competitive running. (These women each have at least one marathon under her belt.) They opened my eyes to a completely different type of overlap between competition and sportsmanship.

A few choice words from these extraordinary runners and friends:

“Passing someone by increasing your speed doesn’t feel the same as passing someone who has just stopped going. If they’ve dropped out and ceded you the victory, the act of winning becomes a passive rather than an aggressive action on your part; a default outcome. Passing someone who has stopped with an injury is a little bit like winning from an opponent’s forfeit—just not the same.”

Plus, she added, running, especially in large races like the recent New York City marathon, is often about competing against yourself. There is more than one winner in the sense that there are thousands of people running simply to beat last year’s time, to break a goal they set for themselves, or just to say they finished. In this way, perhaps running is more inclusive than the mere wins and losses of team sports.

Perhaps most optimistically:

“Having run myself down to the bare bones of my psyche—a point at which ‘focus’ means relatively little, I’m tempted to hypothesize that she wasn’t thinking about much at all. When you’re really stretching your physical limits when you run, you don’t need to waste energy on strategy and plays the way you might in other sports. You run yourself stupid, down to your base instincts. I think it’s highly likely that she wasn’t thinking about much at all when she saw Shine collapsed on the track. I bet she’s just a sweetheart deep down and was moved by some base instinct of true human compassion. Whether she [lost] the meet and her coach was pissed afterward or not is anybody’s guess. But it’s hard for me to look at the photos of the two exhausted girls and see anything but hope for humanity.”

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