The Grace of Competition

Frustrations are mounting for the U.S. Olympic team as highly favored skiers and skaters suffer mishap after mishap. The speedskaters have been particularly disappointing. A skinsuit designed by Under Amor and Lockheed was to have given them a formidable advantage; but they now complain that they never had an adequate opportunity to test the super-suits or get accustomed to them. Secrecy seems to have been the main reason for delaying the unveiling of the super-suit until the Games were about to begin.

Lost in the controversy over the suit itself is the larger question of what Olympic competition should be about. Should speedskating and other events become a contest of technology like NASCAR racing? What should the proper balance be between the qualities of the individual competitors and the technological assets at their disposal? Is it fair that Olympic programs with greater resources flourish at the expense of those with less? Finally and most importantly, when does the pursuit of winning undermine the values of competition itself?

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was a firm believer in the value of competition. Coubertin opposed, however, a misplaced emphasis on winning as the goal of international competition. He wrote: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Canada's Cross-Country Ski coach, Justin Wadsworth would have made de Coubertin proud. Seeing Russian skier Anton Gafarov struggle to complete his event with a broken ski wrapped around his foot, Wadsworth ran to his rescue, and kneeling in the snow replaced the damaged ski with one of his own. Wadsworth explained: "I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line." Wadsworth's wife, Beckie Scott, had been the beneficiary of a costlier act of kindness, which Wadsworth himself witnessed when he skied in the 2006 Olympics. Scott's relay partner, Sara Renner had broken her pole half-way through the race when Norwegian coach Bjornar Haakensmoen gave her a new one. Haakensmoen's generosity cost his team a medal, as Scott and Renner's Canadian team took second and the Norwegians finished fourth.

Competition taught Wadsworth and Haakensmoen about the golden rule and playing well. All competitors strive to win, but the true Olympians understand that in the final analysis, sports are meant to bring us together in a common appreciation of the human struggle itself.