Underneath the competition, sportsmanship ethic prevails
Many athletes exude ideals of Games, from embraces in the pool to a fencing timeout.
By the measure of modern sports, Michael Phelps might as well be Mahatma Gandhi. In a world weaned on the headlong pursuit of home-run records and the precise choreography of touchdown dances, his gesture was almost unheard of.
Yes, he swam in the heats of the 4x100 individual medley relay, so he received a medal. But by bowing out of swimming the final round this weekend, giving his well-earned slot to a teammate, he gave up his place on the podium, a final prime-time lap in the pool, and - as it turned out - a share of a new world record.
It is the seeming miracle of the Olympiad - a two-week window when the idealistic underpinnings of the Games offer a more hopeful view of sport and humanity. In truth, the Olympics simply give the world an opportunity to turn its eyes toward what is always there.
Whether it is the camaraderie of kayakers or medieval chivalry finding a 21st-century form in fencing, the Games bring to light a sporting world that is ordinarily far beyond the American focus. It is the world of the amateur, where contracts play no part in the calculus of competition, and athletes find themselves far more united in anonymity than divided by scoreboards or stopwatches.
To be sure, the foibles and frustrations of humankind find a forum here just as they do outside the Olympic rings - in everything from judging controversies to judo boycotts. The Games are not a separation from the world, but an amplification of it. Yet no other event holds athletes to such high standards of sportsmanship, and no other event so celebrates the noble and selfless in sport.
"Nobody on the US water polo team is going for the money. They're going for the camaraderie," says John Lucas, an Olympic historian who has been to every summer Games since 1960. "There are far more patriotic and high-minded athletes than there are robber barons and drug cheats."
This year, Phelps has given America a glimpse into the collegial world of swimming, where each race ends not with the last stroke, but with the shower of hugs and handshakes that inevitably follow. At times, swimming can seem a perpetual graduation party without the pointy hats.
The Olympic ideal only adds to that sportsmanship. "Healthy competition, that's what the Olympic Games are all about," says Gary Hall Jr., winner of the men's 50-meter freestyle. "After the race is finished, you shake your competitor's hand. You don't see that anywhere else like you do at the Olympics."
These Games have not been without controversy, whether it's South Korea protesting a scoring error that gave the men's all-around to American gymnast Paul Hamm, or whether it's Aaron Peirsol being temporarily disqualified in the 200-meter backstroke. Yet even when Austrian officials said they would appeal the final ruling on Peirsol, which gave him the gold, silver medalist Markus Rogan said he did not support his country's protest. Peirsol won by two seconds, and Peirsol deserved the gold, he said.
Not surprisingly, the two are good friends.
That's hardly unusual among the summer Games' more modest sports, where the pretensions of professional sports dissolve. Shooters often all take the same bus, no matter which country they're from. The top kayakers in the world even train together.
"It's very open between athletes," says kayaker Rami Zur. "If you beat me, it's because you're better than me, not because of some secret training."
Yet the sportsmanship of these Games is shown in a thousand things far more subtle - and less likely to make prime-time TV. In the animated world of fencing, where every touch is seemingly cause for an international inquiry, it is shown in the earnest embrace after bouts - perhaps not in friendship, but with clear respect. It is evident when a Swedish diver applauds a Canadian colleague after he hits a difficult dive in practice.
And it is obvious at a midnight gymnastics press conference, when the Romanian coach turns to 25-year-old American Mohini Bhardwaj, who has worked for 10 years to make her first Olympic team - and has redefined the accepted age for international gymnasts in the process. "I hope to work with someone like that someday," he says. "It is my dream."
It is as if the monastic life of the amateur Olympian breeds a respect above all for the competition - and the competitor - almost as much as the result.
Indeed, in many ways, the most telling moment of these Olympics for saber fencer Ivan Lee won't show up on any scorecard. It is the moment he did nothing.
In the midst of a bronze-medal match - and on the verge of claiming the first-ever medal in team fencing for the United States - Lee's Russian opponent raised his hand. He was asking for time.
In a split second, the lunging Lee had to make a gentleman's decision: either continue the attack and score the point or honor the request. Earlier in the day, one of Lee's teammates had similarly asked for time when his fencing mask fell in front of his eyes. His French opponent had responded by smacking the American over the head, winning the point - and eventually the semifinal match by that one point.
For Lee, though, there was no choice to be made. He stopped mid-swing. Minutes later, the American saber team lost the historic bronze - and a chance to bring the sport precious national recognition - again by that one point.
There was not a moment's regret.
"I suppose I could have won the point," says Lee. "But the most important thing to me is how I fence."