Volume 17 • Issue 15 | SEPTEMBER 3 - 10, 2004


Trying to teach Olympic-size sportsmanship

By Jane Flanagan

I’m having a tough time teaching my child to be a good sport.

Rusty, who is 6, hates to loose. At anything. He’s been known to stomp away from a game of checkers. Also, the board game, Sorry. We used to play it in the kitchen while I was making dinner. As I frequently needed to jump up to stir the tomato sauce or check the chicken, I would ask him to move for me. But not anymore. He cheats.

But then came the Olympics. These games were brand new to him and he was fascinated. He watched everything – swimming, basketball, fencing, softball, beach volleyball, gymnastics, you name it. But he would only root for the winning team. He’d even switch loyalties mid-stream if the leader fell behind.

But while he was focusing on winners, I was watching the players. Some athletes were less than a decade older than my son, yet the examples of good sportsmanship abounded: a silver medalist swimming over lane lines to congratulate a gold medalist; a tri-athlete, a ringer for the gold, who was overtaken at the last minute, telling reporters she couldn’t have run a step faster, and was proud to have the silver. Likewise, the members of a silver-medal men’s relay team, also expected to get gold, telling the media that they did their best and simply got beat.

But there were other things that were not so encouraging. Why was Michael Phelps the only American swimmer mentioned during the opening days of the games? What about the rest of the team? How to explain the endless booing after a Russian gymnast received a score the fans didn’t like? And why did the judges change the score as a result? What was the message there? “Whine loud enough and you’ll get your way.”

But this was the work of grownups. The athletes just went out and did their best. In leotards, swimming goggles, running shoes, they focused and performed with dignity. Okay there were exceptions — a gymnast who scowled throughout her competition and stuck her tongue out in response to a score she didn’t like. And the doping – well that, of course, is cheating. Most, however, performed admirably.

But one admirable athlete did not have such an easy time of it: Paul Hamm. We missed seeing Hamm’s incredible comeback in the all-around gymnastics on TV, but the next day I told Rusty the story. I showed him the newspaper picture of Hamm sprawled on the floor at the foot of the judges. I stressed how this guy came back from a monumental mistake, got his head back in the game and won the gold medal.

But then the bru-ha-ha afterward. Fortunately, Rusty didn’t hear about it, because I don’t know how I would explain this. An error was made in scoring. The South Korean gymnast was shortchanged and he should have won gold. The gymnastics federation officials refused to accept responsibility, or even discuss the problem with Hamm. Hamm was left to face the cameras alone.
Where were the grownups? Hamm’s a 21-year-old who has devoted his life to this sport. In preparing for the games, I doubt any time was spent discussing how to forfeit a gold medal. Why weren’t the officials taking responsibility and showing him how to deal? If they wanted him to cede ownership, why didn’t they tell HIM and lead the way? Instead, they hid.

Two weeks later, these same grownups have now come out officially and publicly to ask him to forfeit it. Now, Hamm can’t win no matter what he does. If he forfeits it, it’s too late for a noble gesture. Then he will be neither a gold medalist nor a hero.

But he’s still a hero to me.

The weekend after Hamm’s performance, Rusty and I were playing basketball. After a he made a half-dozen shots that didn’t go in, he gave up. He dropped the ball, sat down and started crying.

“I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” he said.

I sat down next to him.

“You’ve got to keep your head in the game,” I said. “You can’t let mistakes throw you. Look at Paul Hamm. Remember HIS mistake?”

Rusty continued to sit for a few minutes thinking.

“Okay,” he said. Then he got up, grabbed the ball and made another shot. It didn’t go in. He made another, then another.


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