I read with interest somewhere that last Tuesday was National Sportsmanship Day, as advanced by a group called the Institute for International Sport, with an eye to "engaging athletes and other community members in thoughtful discussions and well planned activities about the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play.ot; This sounded like an admirable idea, so I went ahead and did a little research on this group and discovered that their goal is to "use sport and the arts as mediums of peace."
Peace and sportsmanship? Well, this sounded a little too kumbayah for me, especially when I saw that they sponsor an annual World Youth Peace Summit. It seems that sportsmanship has gone the way of most other virtuous practices; either being sloughed off as hopelessly out of date, or worse, underhandedly used to promote ulterior motives.
So, as you encourage young Johnnie to dutifully give a hearty three cheers and a warm handshake to his worthy opponent after a game, you can also train him to become a "Peace Broker" where he will take courses that will focus on "poverty, nuclear proliferation and the environment." The Marquess of Queensbury would be proud.
Does true sportsmanship still have a place in America? Of course it does; just don't expect to see too much of it at the professional level. But that's not surprising since kids today don't have too many role models of fair play anywhere at the national level. When their parents turn on the news at night, boys and girls are bombarded by stories of folks elbowing their way to the top and politicians who, when they don't like the rules, pick up their bat and ball and go home; or to Illinois.
And with a few exceptions, gone too are the days when the Olympic Games were bastions of amateurism, sportsmanship, and fair play. Take, for example, the Olympic Oath as sworn in 1920: "We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honor of our country and for the glory of sport." Today's oath?
In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.
As is true of most important things in modern life the past few decades, we find that a notion like honoring one's country is considered hopelessly outdated, while a Christian ideal like chivalry is, as they say, dead. And the deposit of these virtues seems to find expression only in fantasy-type children's movies where, readily on display by lions and blue aliens, they are merely to be ooh-ed and aah-ed at; not actually lived or imitated.
By happy coincidence, the very week I chanced on Sportsmanship Day, I happened to watch a movie wherein a true story of the real thing was wonderfully on display. The folks over at IIS could take a lesson from watching the splendid Oscar-winner, Chariots of Fire; a mostly fact-based story of two participants in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, and a banquet for those who love inspiring films.
The film chronicles the preparation of two 100 metre runners; one, Harold Abrahams, a hard-driven English Jew at Cambridge and the other, Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian missionary. The film devotes much time to the anti-Semitism faced by the former and the temptations of fame by the latter, which culminates in a non-climax as the long awaited match-up of the two never materializes, as Liddell refuses to run a qualifying race on a Sunday.
Yet to me, its greatest attribute is in depicting the genuine profundity of the characters; whether it be Abrahams' classmates or the members of Liddell's congregation. They lived in a time when faith, patriotism and even love of sport were all lived out in the day-to-day demonstration of their devotion. One wonders where in the realm of modern high-level sports competition, might be found a champion who would utter, as does the Liddell character: "I believe God made me for a purpose...for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."
Today's youths are so confused by mixed media messages and modern watered-down notions of faith, patriotism, honor and fair play, they would probably be confused by Liddell's refusal to run on the Sabbath, but would most certainly understand an oath decrying doping and drugs. Maybe next year on Sportsmanship Day, instead of holding peace marches, moms and dads might just rent a copy of Chariots of Fire for the kiddies.
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