The Spirit of the Sport

American female runner Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin from New Zealand collided during a 5,000m semi-final after Hamblin tripped to avoid the person in front of her causing D’Agostino to run into her. D’Agostino was first to get up and tried to encourage a disoriented Hamblin to finish the race. Hamblin said afterwards:

“I went down, and I was like, ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’…Then suddenly, there’s this hand on my shoulder [and D’Agostino saying], ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this.’”

Quartz writer Marc Bain says that these women embodied the Olympic Spirit that Pierre de Coubertin advocated. Coubertin was a humanist who wanted to counter nineteenth century spiritual and moral decline. Coubertin believed that the point of sport was to cultivate virtues. To him, it was how you compete more than whether you won that made you an Olympian.

We are schizophrenic when it comes to sports, professional or Olympic. Sometimes we are with Pierre de Coubertin in believing that the athlete is mind, body, and character and that he or she should be held to a higher standard of virtue than others.  One of the arguments against doping is that athletes serve as role models to children.

At the same time, we want winners. We want our guy to be the best and to win at all costs. Winners write history.

The athlete is a race horse with a feeding and training regimen based on the best science, technology, and pseudoscience have to offer. Athletes try everything from sleeping in a hypobaric chamber to suction cups, cryotherapy, and electrode massages and any other ritual that may or may not involve visiting the witch at Endor and signing a waiver in blood with a phoenix feather.

In one view man is like a well-oiled machine. In the other view, he is like a god. Postmoderns like to make gods of their machines so it is no wonder that we have conflicting expectations from our athletes. And, for us, our gods must embody the highest good: progress. We need to know that we are progressing to be more godlike, whether that means more machine-like or immortal or both. This idea of progress is measured in broken World Records and impossible feats of prowess.

The problem with progress is that it has no time for the weak. We sit awestruck by the way that Simone Biles flies in the air or Usain Bolt leaves his competition in the dust or Michael Phelps glides through the water. They are almost inhuman in their abilities. But, it is D’Agostino and Hamblin’s humanness that, ironically, made them special. Biles, Bolt, and Phelps may stroke our pride, but D’Agostino and Hamblin touch our soul. They are mortals who fall, get mentally disoriented, and tear their ACL. And, unlike machines they somehow found within themselves the strength to cross the finish line in the midst of weakness.

Neither of them could remember D’Agostino going down and the last bit of the race. D’Agostino said in an interview that she prayed her way through the last lap and drew from the Bible verse written on her hand (“now to him who is able”). Hamblin pointed out that life is made up of these moments, and when all is said and done, it is the people you remember.

When asked why they have received such an outpouring of support from people, D’Agostino said that on a deeper level we know as humans that this is what we’re meant to do, to sacrifice for and serve each other.

It is in this sense that D’Agostino and Hamblin were like gods, though not one that resides on Mt. Olympus,