On Sportsmanship

By Melanie Moore – July 5, 2012

In this, our Competition issue, I was pondering the concept of competition…not so much what is good or not good about competition, but what feels good about it. It occurred to me that competition is important in any aspect of life—it keeps us on our toes at the very least and drives us forward to new goals at best. But what makes competition feel good is competition in combination with sportsmanship.

Competition is pervasive in our world. Businesses compete, politicians compete, college applicants compete, organisms in the environment compete (including humans competing for, among other life-giving resources, increasingly scarce water), and, of course, athletes compete. Competing is often defined in terms of rivalry. A rival is “one of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess.” Synonyms of rival include: coequal, counterpart, equivalent, fellow, like, match, parallel, peer, equal. Yet in zealous competition, rivalry too often gets extended, distorted into the concept of “enemy.” A rival is not, however, an enemy. An enemy is, by definition, “one that is antagonistic to another; especially one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent; something harmful or deadly; a military adversary; a hostile unit or force.”

Sadly, the definitions of “enemy” can call to mind some very poor sportsmanship in what are otherwise simply rivalrous competitions, ergo the necessity of sportsmanship as a foundation for competition.

Good sportsmanship is defined as “playing fair, following the rules of the game, respecting the judgment of referees and officials, treating opponents with respect,” according to kidshealth.org.

One example of good sportsmanship went viral last month. Megan Vogel, a high school track athlete in Ohio, helped a competitor finish the 3200-meter race, navigating the competitor across the finish line ahead of herself. Vogel, who had already won the state title in the 1600, was running last in the 3200 with only a few meters to go when the runner just ahead of her, Arden McMath, fell and couldn’t continue. The hand-held video of Vogel helping McMath finish the race has been featured on the Huffington Post website amid other national media outlets.

Sports like tennis and golf are iconic for sportsmanship—probably because they are among the few sports where you call your own lines and record your own score. The spirit of the game is important no matter what the sport. Lifting others up, even as you seek to test yourself against their skill or against your own strength and endurance, is itself a reward. Knowing you did your best is better for you—more healthy, literally—than cheating to “win” a competition. And losing with grace is better for you than getting angry and firing all the neurological and muscle activity associated with stress, blame, and the negativity of poor sportsmanship.

It seems that the root of poor sportsmanship lies in the reductive nature of a binary win/lose mentality. If the only reason to compete is to win, and the only alternative to winning is losing, then you have a poverty of character. I’m not saying everyone should get a trophy just for showing up. I’m not saying fire-in-the-belly competitive nature is not meritorious. I’m not saying good sportsmanship is about mediocrity. And I am certainly not saying that feeling disappointed in your results from a competition is a bad thing. Of course there is disappointment. If you’ve set a goal, planned, prepared, and put all your effort into something, yes, it is heartbreaking to fall short of your goal. But just because you didn’t win does not mean you lost.

There is only one definition of the word “lose” which is related to competition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, out of 12 definitions for the word. To lose means, among other things: “to bring to destruction,” “to miss from one’s possession,” “to suffer deprivation of: part with especially in an unforeseen or accidental manner,” “to fail to use: let slip by,” “to cause to miss one’s way or bearnings,” “to make (oneself) withdrawn from immediate reality,” and “to wander or go astray from.” Interestingly, one definition of “lose” also defines poor sportsmanship: “to fail to keep control.”

Competition is a great thing—in every aspect of life—but it is nothing without good sportsmanship. In our humanitarian efforts, let’s fight the poverty of sportsmanship that sullies competition. Let us all compete as our best selves—physically and as good sports.



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