Jack Todd: At the Olympics, Medals Aren’t What Matter Most
When U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo opened a fresh crate of ugly and dumped it over the Rio following her team’s loss to Sweden in women’s soccer last week, it was yet another illustration of how not to behave on the international stage.
Solo, in case you missed it, said the Swedes “played like a bunch of cowards.”
“The best team did not win today,” she added. “I strongly and firmly believe that.”
Not only did the best team win – the classier team won as well. In the wake of the 2012 London Olympic fiasco, when former U.S. star Abby Wambach bullied the referee into a couple of egregious calls against Canada that handed the Americans an undeserved berth in the final, Solo’s outburst was simply another instance of world-class poor sportsmanship.
Nor was Solo alone during the first week of competition in Rio.
There was the American dope cheat, sprinter Justin Gatlin, hitting out at teammate Lilly King after the swimmer suggested (correctly) that those with positive tests in their past should have been left at home.
There was Michael Phelps pulling the “Phelps face” to intimidate younger and less decorated swimmers. Even in the debased currency of swimming medals, surely Phelps has won enough not to feel the need for that sort sort of behaviour?
In the cesspool that is Twitter, “fans” got in the no-class act by calling American decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton a traitor for wearing a Canada hat in support of his wife, heptathlon bronze medalist Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
Egypt’s Islam Elshehaby, right, refuses to shake hands with Israel’s Or Sasson (white) after Sasson’s win in their +100kg judo contest match of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 12, 2016.
Egypt’s Islam Elshehaby, right, refuses to shake hands with Israel’s Or Sasson (white) after Sasson’s win in their +100kg judo contest match of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 12, 2016. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP/Getty Images
And in the most notorious and appalling incident, there was Egypt’s Islam El Shahaby, refusing to shake hands with Israel’s Or Sasson after losing their 100-kg judo bout. El Shahaby was under pressure from Islamists at home who didn’t want him to fight Sasson at all – but if you aren’t willing to check all that garbage at the door, you shouldn’t be at the Olympics at all.
Same goes for Solo, a serial bad actor whose first significant action on the international stage was a post-game putdown of her own teammate and fellow goalkeeper. Given an off-field history that includes a domestic violence rap, Solo should have been left off the American squad – but her outburst was what you get when you put winning over all else and forget that how you win (or lose) is just as important.
Canada’s Penny Oleksiak celebrates her gold medal in the women’s 100m freestyle finals during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Canada’s Penny Oleksiak celebrates her gold medal in the women’s 100m freestyle finals during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS
While Solo was acting like a bratty three-year-old after a sandbox fight, Canada’s 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak was setting the gold standard for Olympian behaviour. Not only did Oleksiak win, she won with the kind of class we associate with athletes from the Canadian Clara Hughes to the Norwegian Johann Olav Koss, athletes who were (and are) great in ways that a punk like Solo will never grasp.
Oleksiak showed that you can smile and joke around with your fellow competitors moments before a final – and still dive into that pool and kick butt. Meeting the standard of international competition doesn’t mean that you don’t compete hard. It does mean that you don’t act like a jerk before and after your event.
Perhaps you’re one of those who, like Donald Trump, believes that “winning” is the only thing that matters. That if you win, it doesn’t matter if you cheat, it doesn’t matter if you’re obnoxious in victory and a sore loser in defeat.
I beg to differ. After enduring that sort of thing for a fortnight during the Atlanta Olympics, I went to Japan to cover the Winter Games in Nagano in 1998. I was working in one of the press sub-centres when the men’s 500-metre speed-skating final went off and the Japanese media and volunteers clustered around the television sets to watch.
As it happened, Japan’s Hiroyasu Shimizu won the gold ahead of Canada’s Jeremy Wotherspoon and Kevin Overland. The Japanese began cheering wildly – until one of them noticed me sitting there with a Canadian accreditation badge. A volunteer came over to me, bowed – and apologized profusely, explaining that they were simply overjoyed that their skater own the gold and that they hadn’t meant to cause offence.
It isn’t necessary to go that far to avoid chest-pounding chauvinism, but the behaviour is widely accepted in our various pro sports leagues really does not cut it on the international stage. When you’re representing your country, you are a diplomat of sorts and you are held to a higher standard.
Eugenie Bouchard, of Canada, poses for pictures with fans after loosing to Angelique Kerber, of Germany, during their match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, August 8, 2016.
Eugenie Bouchard, of Canada, poses for pictures with fans after loosing to Angelique Kerber, of Germany, during their match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, August 8, 2016. Tyler Anderson / Postmedia News
Genie Bouchard gets it. After drawing criticism herself for refusing to shake hands with an opponent before a match, Bouchard’s demeanour in Brazil was an example for athletes everywhere to follow. She was open, relaxed and, by all accounts friendly to everyone.
Does it matter how athletes behave? I believe it is. If the Olympics do any fundamental good to counter the bad, from doping to the bulldozing of poor neighbourhoods to the awarding of the Games to tyrants from Russia to China, it is by bringing us together. When Oleksiak and Simone Manuel finish tied for the gold medal to one-hundredth of a second and then embrace and congratulate one another at the finish line, those images are broadcast all over the world. When their parents do the same, it reinforces the positive message.
United States’ Simone Manuel, left, and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak celebrate winning joint gold and setting a new olympic record in the women’s 100-meter freestyle during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
United States’ Simone Manuel, left, and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak celebrate winning joint gold and setting a new olympic record in the women’s 100-meter freestyle during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Natacha Pisarenko / AP
Against all odds, Rio is staging a beautiful Olympic Games. Brazilians have suffered the scorn of the world for years and yet they pulled it off. At the very least, they should be rewarded with decent behaviour on the part of world-famous athletes who come to compete.
We expect the best from our Canadian athletes and for the most part, we get it. Jennifer Abel swallowed the bitter pill of two fourth-place finishes at the Olympics and handled it with class. Not a word about her opponents being cowards.
On my Olympic team, I’d rather have one Penny Oleksiak or Jennifer Abel than a dozen like Hope Solo. Because winning a heap of medals and being a great Olympian are not the same thing.