ATHENS -- That intolerable droning noise you hear in the background of these Olympics, grating your very last nerve, is the sound of sore losers. Swimmers whining like petulant children about illegal kicks and turns. Gymnasts yowling like cats about favoritism among judges. It's enough to make you clap your hands over your ears and start babbling "la-la-la-la-la-la-la." But just when you can't bear it anymore, comes the faint sound of Michael Phelps's sportsmanship.
Why does sportsmanship matter? It's a deceptively simple question. Actually, after watching the past 48 hours of these Olympics, you may be tempted to ask not why sportsmanship matters, but whether it matters at all, since so little of it has been displayed here that we've almost forgotten what it looks and sounds like. But two small occurrences on Friday make lucid why it matters and what it's good for. Runner Bernard Lagat of Kenya lost a shoe. And Phelps gave up his relay spot to teammate Ian Crocker.
May I suggest something? May I suggest that the test of real champions is not just whether they win, but also how they carry themselves in the winning and losing, and most especially in losing painfully? The primary lesson of all competition is to learn composure, which after all is a kind of honor. May I also suggest this key point: that in every sport and in every life there are judgment calls and fluke bounces and disastrous equipment failures. Sometimes they go in your favor, sometimes they don't. The real lesson of sport, as Thomas Cahill suggests in his book about the Greeks, "Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea," is resignation.
Instead, what we've heard in these Games is a constant sullen refrain from athletes who feel they didn't get what they "deserve." They see the Olympics through the single prism of their very own eyes and egos. The whole quality of their experience in meeting the rest of the world to play games can be defined by the sour whining questions: "Did I get mine? And if I didn't get it, who got it instead, and did they deserve it?" In other words, they've missed the whole Olympic experience. They were here, and they competed, they were drug-tested, and wanded by security guards, but they might as well have been absent. They missed the whole point.
You'd like to say this only happens among coddled, highly paid American athletes. But that's not true. Public Whiner No. 1, and still champion: Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, who considers herself the "real" gold medal winner, despite the fact that she quivered during her beam routine and was outperformed by an airborne pixie of 16, Carly Patterson, in the individual all-around. When her score of 9.462 appeared on the board she stuck out her tongue. "If the judges were Greek, I would have no difficulty winning the gold medal," she said. "They are the ones who are going to have to live with their conscience." Public whiner No. 2, Gary Hall Jr., who somehow thinks Phelps personally robbed him by being the greatest swimmer at this Olympics. Public whiner No. 3, Aaron Peirsol, who publicly accused a Japanese swimmer of cheating in the breaststroke. Public whiner No. 4, South Korea, which is protesting the score for Yang Tae Young in the men's all-around gymnastics that gave him the bronze while American Paul Hamm got the gold. Public Whiner No. 5, the British Olympic Association, which is considering whether to try to pursue disqualification of Peirsol for an illegal turn in the 200-meter backstroke because one of its swimmers, James Goddard, would then move from fourth place to third, earning a bronze medal.
Now, I don't know about you, but if I acted that way when I was a kid, I got the imprint of a hand on my backside, my playthings were taken away, and I was given a very tedious household chore.
There are no doubt some here who consider themselves unlucky or cheated out of "their" medal. Let me correct them in this view. There is no medal here that is "yours." To paraphrase the very sensible words of Paul to the Corinthians, "all is given to you." Every one of the athletes here is insanely fortunate -- born strong and healthy, blessed with talent and determination, given the opportunity to make something of themselves. It is unseemly in the extreme for them to start talking about what they "deserve." When they do so, they are what Paul described to the Corinthians as "noisy gong or clanging cymbal."
Where is a sense of balance, modesty and self-possession? Some here have it. Lamar Odom of the U.S. men's basketball team does. "All the great winners, when they lost, they lost with dignity and pride," Odom said. "There's kids in Afghanistan who will lose their lives. If we lose, we will get to go home."
Bernard Lagat has it. During his heat in the 1,500 meters Friday night, Lagat lost his shoe when Alan Webb stepped on Lagat's heel. Lagat, strangely, did not file a protest.
Do you know what he did?
He kicked off his shoe and kept running. He qualified with one shoe off and one shoe on.
The most gallant athlete at these Games so far is one who, were he a different sort of person, might consider himself disappointed. Phelps lost his bid for a record eight gold medals early in the Games when he was part of a relay team that got upset in the 4x100 freestyle relay and finished third. He did not brood or sulk or blame his teammates. Rather, he has gone on to win five gold medals. Friday night after winning the gold in the 100 butterfly, earning a spot in the 4x100 medley relay, Phelps yielded that spot to Crocker, so that Crocker can have a shot at a gold medal.
So I don't agree with those who believe all sports should be decided by clock or the yardstick. Things happen at the Olympics that are ridiculous, tainted, emotional and bizarre. But to only go by the clock or the yardstick would be to dehumanize games and thus strip them of point and meaning.
One of the most gifted Greek athletes of his time was Archilochus, who later turned poet. He said this:
Oh heart, my heart, no public weeping when you win;
No solitude nor weeping when you fail to prove.
Rejoice at simple things, and be but vexed by sin
And evil slightly. Know the tides through which we move.