For me, along with the success of our female athletes, it was a defining and transcendent moment of the Turin Winter Olympics and one of the most gracious moments in recent sport memory. I am referring to the moment when Bjorner Haakensmoen, the Norwegian cross-country skiing coach, helped Canadian skiers Sara Renner and Beckie Scott win a silver medal by handing Renner a replacement ski pole after hers had been broken.
Growing up, competition in sports was a central part of my identity. My father coached football and basketball. His six children, three boys and three girls, were all filled with the competitive spirit, whether we were playing checkers, road hockey, Monopoly, or backyard football. Each of us played every team sport that was available to us. As far as organized sports go, I’ve played competitive baseball, as well as basketball at the college level. And whenever I play a game, no matter what it is, my intention is to compete as hard as I can.
One thing my father taught me, though, is that to compete with a sense of fairness, a sense of respect for yourself and others, is far more important than whether you win or lose. I realize this sounds like a cliche, but when you take a look around, you realize that this ethos is sadly lacking in our society. Certainly, the steroid use scandals that hover over every Olympics are never-ending evidence of the extent to which a win-at-all-costs mindset dominates serious sports. From the steroid-fuelled exploits of Eastern-bloc female athletes in the nineteen-seventies, through the national shame of the Ben Johnson fiasco, up to the present day rumours of blood doping etc., the history of modern day Olympic competition has been tainted by controversy and shame.
Nor is it only the athletes themselves and their coaches and doctors who are to blame. The fans, too, must take some responsibility for the “must-win” mentality that helps fuel this overheated machine. Just take a look at all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that erupted after our men’s hockey team were knocked out of medal contention. The simple fact is that there are lot of tremendous players and teams in international hockey these days. It is far from Canada’s God-given right anymore to come home with a medal, and it would have been far better to enjoy the increased parity of the sport, and focus our national attention on the success of our other athletes, than to devote so much time and energy on this one disappointment.
I think it is for these reasons that many of us have the sense that something is missing in today’s society, and that is why the simple act of everyday sportsmanship displayed by the Norwegian coach struck such a chord with so many sports fans.