by Tito Morales
ATHENS, August 23. SO what have we learned about the state of the sport at the conclusion of yet another memorable Olympic Games swimming competition? Plenty.
Michael Phelps is everything he’s been billed to be. The U.S. women’s team is everything it wasn’t billed to be. Ian Thorpe is still everything he’s always been billed to be. And while the rest of the world has made tremendous gains on Team USA, the Americans are still top dog.
The most important lessons to emerge during the course of these Games, though, had little or nothing to do with world records or medal counts.
They instead had to do with the nature of sportsmanship and fair play.
Coming into these Games, the heads of the U.S.O.C. were understandably concerned about the reception our athletes would receive in Athens. International perception of the United States has been at an all-time low. And experts, including swimming great Janet Evans, were actually recruited to offer insight as to how all of our Olympians should best behave on the world’s most prominent sporting stage.
The concept was simple: do your country proud, both in victory and in defeat.
The nadir of boorish behavior during Olympic competition, of course, was the U.S. men’s track and field 400 meter relay's celebration in Sydney. The team of Jon Drummond, Bernard Williams, Brian Lewis and Maurice Greene strutted, flexed, and preened for the cameras as if they were each competing for top honors in a reality show called “American Ugly.” The general consensus was that the quartet earned a four-way tie for first place.
How refreshing it was to see from the recent competition, though, that swimmers from around the globe are still quite removed from such insensitive, disrespectful and immature antics.
The world’s numerous television cameras were closer than ever to our little niche sport, and the vast majority of the athletes still performed with consummate grace under pressure. The overall conduct of these most decorated of ambassadors was, in fact, simply Olympian in its sportsmanship.
From Michael Klim being the first to congratulate members of the U.S. men’s victorious 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay, and, still later, all the athletes from all the teams embracing one another and shaking hands behind the blocks in this relay and all others…
To the genuine display of admiration exchanged by long-time rivals Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband after each of their hard-fought races…
To Natalie Coughlin and Inge de Bruin, both rushing over to congratulate Jodie Henry on her world record performance in the semifinals of the 100 meter freestyle…
To Markus Rogan insisting that it was Aaron Piersol, and not he, who was the rightful champion in the 200 meter backstroke…
To Michael Phelps relinquishing his spot on the 4 x 100 medley relay to teammate and rival Ian Crocker…
The list goes on and on and on.
What the world witnessed over the course of the eight days at the Olympic Aquatic Centre was a truly inspiring display of modern Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin’s original vision of “building a peaceful and better world … through sport.”
To be sure, there is no such thing as a perfect universe. But if the biggest controversies to emerge from the pressure-packed competition were a few questionable judgment calls on rule technicalities, well, the sport of competitive swimming should just endure to see another few Olympiads.
Future Olympians were no doubt watching the proceedings with rapt attention.
And while the specifics of who won what and in what time will fade over time, the lessons that the world’s greatest swimmers taught about the nature of humility, fair play, and sportsmanship will hopefully live on for many, many generations to come.