“It’s the first race that I’ve ever really had where I crossed the finish line and thought there wasn’t even another second that I could have made up at any point in that race… If you can say that honestly to yourself I don’t think you can be disappointed in any result. The second I saw the video I didn’t think it was anything worth disqualifying him [the Japanese walker] over. And so we had the option to appeal the Japanese decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and I just told our team that I didn’t want to pursue that, that I was happy with the decision that had been made by the initial appeal.”
“When I think about winning an Olympic medal there’s that of jubilation or joy… it’s the coming together of everything we’ve worked for. It’s the pinnacle of our sport, and when I saw that [his name in third place] up there. it was just kind of mixed emotion, kind of empty feeling, kind of like ‘what’s going on here?’ ‘Dude, is this right?’… And I think that initial gut reaction told me a lot later on about — am I going to be able to live with this decision…”
“I’m no worse off in fourth place… I’m really proud of fourth place. Anyone who lives their life for the medal and based on the medal, they’re not going to be happy when they get it, and I think they’ll never be happy. You know, I’m much happier pushing myself, doing sport for myself, and trying to get the most I can out of myself. And yesterday I think I definitely did that, and so I can really proud of that.” – Evan Dunfee, 4th place finisher in the 50K walk at the Rio Olympics
Among my other responsibilities as a high school coach, I’m expected (by school and league policy) to begin every season by discussing sportsmanship with my team. I find it somewhat difficult to do this in the abstract. It feels much harder to define good (or bad) sportsmanship than simply to illustrate it with examples.
At the Rio Olympics, there was an incident that many people felt demonstrated the best of sport. After Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin collided and fell in their heat of the women’s 5000m, D’Agostino stopped to help Hamblin to her feet, before herself collapsing to the track. Seeing this, Hanblin went back to encourage D’Agostino to continue, and both finished the race. It would turn out later that D’Agostino had done so despite a torn ACL, sprained MCL, and torn meniscus. This moment of instinctive compassion and its aftermath felt intensely moving to many, including me, and it seemed fitting that each runners was later presented with the Pierre de Coubertin medal, awarded to those who exemplify the Olympic spirit.
But moving as it was, I’m not sure that the women’s 5000m, or at least those few moments when the two runners paused from the competition to encourage each other, was the best example of sportsmanship in Rio. There was another story that has stuck in my mind, and that has made me think long and hard about why we do sports and what we seek from them.
With only about half a mile left in the men’s 50K walk, Canada’s Evan Dunfee and Japan’s Hirooki Arai were battling for third place. After over 30 miles and more than 3 1/2 hours of racing, both men were at the edge of complete exhaustion and collapse, when Arai tried to go by Dunfee. There was contact, and Dunfee was thrown off-stride. Arai would take a slight lead and hold it to the end, finishing in third. Dunfee, despite walking to a national record 3:41:40, would finish 14 seconds back in fourth.
But then the scoreboard flashed the results, showing Dunfee in the bronze medal position. The officials had disqualified Arai for the apparent hip check. For a few hours, Canadian news outlets celebrated the news. But the Japanese team protested the decision, and later that day, the disqualification was reversed and Arai was reinstated. Dunfee was once again in fourth place.
The Canadian team could have continued the legal battle and challenged the reinstatement, but Dunfee told them ‘no.’ His explanation, both passionate and grounded, is one of the best expressions of respect for sport that I’ve ever read. In addition to the quotes at the top of this post, he said this about the final mile of the race: “I wanted it so badly… but it’s the Olympics; everyone wants it that badly. He got the better of me.”
I couldn’t help compare Dunfee’s attitude toward the result with the attitude of Mahiedine Mekhissi, who was more than happy to earn a bronze medal in the men’s steeplechase by pursuing an appeal to have third-place finisher Ezekiel Kemboi disqualified for stepping outside the lane after one of the water jumps. Mekhissi is a tremendous runner, the defending silver medalist, but he is not well liked for his actions on and off the track. His desire to have Kemboi disqualified and his self-satisfaction when it happened, struck many as ugly and selfish.
It’s hard not to see the emptiness of wanting the medal so badly that you’re OK with better runners being removed from the results so that you’ll be promoted onto the podium. As Dunfee said, anyone who lives for the medal is never going to be happy. Or to put it another way, if you need the medal to feel good about yourself, you’re not going to feel good about yourself with the medal, either.
Dunfee wasn’t presented with a special sportsmanship medal. All he did was compete to the utmost of his abilities, finish with nothing left to give, and then accept the result that his effort was good enough for fourth in the World. That’s an example worth sharing, even if it doesn’t move us to pity.