On March 3, 2010, senior Rebecca Wong finished tenth in the Massachusetts state high school alpine skiing championships, the final medal position. Or so she and everyone else on the slopes thought.
When Wong watched a film of her slalom run afterwards, she realized that she had missed a gate near the bottom of the course and should have been disqualified. Race officials had not seen the miss, and neither had any spectator.
Rather than remain silent and keep the medal, Wong e-mailed the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to report her infraction, writing that "I certainly cannot accept credit for something that I did not earn." The medal "would have burned a hole in my dresser had I kept it," the skier later told her Chelmsford High School coach, who fully supported her decision.
When the state association awarded the final medal to the 11th-place finisher, the Lowell Sun reported that Wong appeared embarrassed by the praise she received at school for her honesty. "I didn't realize," she said, that "everyone was going to find out about it."
This story's lesson: conscience, temptation and integrity
Last month's column identified generosity and community service as hallmarks of sports heroes. Athletes also achieve heroism when they forgo an unfair advantage, and sometimes even risk defeat, because sportsmanship and respect mean more to them than the scoreboard. With the will to win undiminished, athletes like Rebecca Wong echo the British Association of Coaches: "Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value."
"Heroes come cheap these days," Tampa Tribune sports columnist Joe Henderson complained a decade ago. "Too often all that matters is what one can do with a ball. . . . We should know better though. Real heroes endure after the game is over. When the cheering is gone and all that is left is their character."
In her own words, Rebecca Wong demonstrated character that endures long after the cheering ended on the Massachusetts ski slopes that day: "I certainly cannot accept credit for something that I did not earn. . . . The medal ‘would have burned a hole in my dresser had I kept it.'"
Robert Frost's classic poem, "The Road Not Taken," delivers the character lesson here:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that made all the difference.
Youth-league parents, coaches and players might never know for sure which road -- silence or disclosure -- would have beckoned at the fork that confronted Rebecca Wong. When conscience clashes with temptation, would an apparently victorious athlete summon the fortitude to set the record straight? Or would the athlete rationalize that officials' errors and oversights are "part of the game"?
Regardless of where one's ethical compass might point in the heat of competition, Wong sensed that by taking the perhaps "less traveled" high road toward disclosure, she will remember her high school years for a principled choice that "made all the difference."
"I didn't realize everyone was going to find out about it."
Rebecca Wong's self-effacing reaction to praise for her honesty highlights the classic definition of ''integrity." In athletic and non-athletic pursuits alike, "Integrity is doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching."
[Source: Rebecca Wong's story is told in Barry Scanlon, For Rebecca Wong, It Was All About Doing the Right Thing, Lowell (Mass.) Sun, Mar. 21, 2010.]Posted January 1, 2011