My 13 year old daughter’s overnight camp has an Olympic-like competition each summer called College League. Many overnight camps have similar competitions but may call it something different. Basically, the camp is divided into four teams and over the course of the summer session the teams compete against each other in a variety of challenges to become the ultimate champion of the summer. The challenges range from athletic to artistic, individual to team. Team spirit is a gigantic component of the scoring as is each team members ability to complete their daily activities on time and appropriately, including cleaning their bunk area and going to the camp nurse for their daily medications. Team members and teams who meet the challenge's expectations, or exceed them, get points. Team members and teams who drop a ball, get docked points. One of the areas teams loose the most points is in sportsmanship - being sore losers, not showing good will to each other or the other teams, not being gracious about what the challenge is and isn't about. In the end, the entire camp pulls together in some really amazing ways and learns a great deal about team work because of this system.
As the Olympic games have gathered momentum this week, sportsmanship has been something I've been watching keenly. To me, an elite athlete is only a true Olympian if he or she is able to be gracious under fire and demonstrate good sportsmanship regardless of the outcome. I have to say, I haven't always been impressed. While most athletes have conducted themselves amazingly well, others haven't and that worries me.
What was interesting to me is that the events where I would have expected tempers to fly, they didn't. For example, gymnastics has a new scoring system where judges can even request to see elements back in slow motion. This adds a delay to resulting each athlete's performance and adds a layer of stress not present at prior games. Still, all athletes on all teams conducted themselves with amazing composure.
Swimming, on the other hand, doesn't have a scoring system issue to contend with. Most swimming events are really old fashioned races. Most of the swimmers seemed to have basic courtesy skills and congratulated each other at the end of each race. What worried me was the fall out after the relay when Team USA men's team not only won but set a new world record and without Phelps. That should impress everyone! Instead, one French swimmer was quoted saying he "wasn't impressed" and his team still "intended to squash" Team USA. That one moment tainted the games for me. And, I was stunned there wasn't an official response from the Olympic committee.
If that swimmer wins an event, is it a true win? Not in my mind. Something needs to change in the Olympic culture just as it needs to change in the MLB, youth sports, and, actually, every sports culture today. Sportsmanship just isn't respected enough and the message given to our kids is the wrong one.
For our kids to learn how to be competitive in a healthy and respectful way, we need to insist that all athletes demonstrate the highest degree of sportsmanship. Just like Manny Ramiriz can't be allowed to slack off when being paid 20 million bucks, Olympians can't be allowed to lip off to each other. They may not have a gigantic salary at stake but many do have big time sponsorships, as well as their event scores and a position on the podium! The time has come for all athletes in all sports at all levels must be held accountable for conducting themselves in a positive and gracious manner towards their teammates, athletic rivals and fans. Anything less needs to have repercussions.
What's the real lesson here for our kids? Winning isn't the entire story in sports. Teach your kids that, and you'll instill in them the one of the essential values the need to embrace as an athlete. BTW, someone needs to show that French swimmer the Ellen video!