The Olympic spirit is best expressed in the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”*
No-one ever exemplified the Olympic spirit of the struggle to triumph over adversity better then Murray Halberg. He was so badly injured while playing rugby when he was 17 that at one point his life was despaired of. After months of rehabilitation, he was left with a withered left arm, and had to teach himself to do everything, from writing to eating, with his right hand. From the embers of that disaster arose the will and the courage of a true champion. His was no overnight success story. His was a story of hard work, of a battle to beat the odds stacked against him. His was a story of self-belief, of travelling the long and winding road to success. 10 years later, Halberg won the Olympic 5000m gold medal at Rome in 1960. This is the man of whom it was said disparagingly that “he looked more like a refugee from a Korean prisoner of war camp than like a top class athlete”. Listen to Murray Halberg as he sums up his journey to success: “When the chips are down, what you do and are is up to you and you alone.” The will to win, the I-can-do-it-spirit, the joy of suffering the pain of competition, the thrill of pushing oneself beyond known limits tempered with the spirit of fair play, the realization that there may be someone better at your shoulder, that you will be a winner even if do not finish in first place, even if you do not walk out with the championship trophy in your hand, even if your face does not figure on the pages of the mainstream and tabloid newspapers. That is what ‘sportitude’ is.
Never forget that “What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player.” – John Wooden, American basketball player and coach
Hark back to July 2008 and that Sunday night when Roger Federer surrendered his Wimbledon crown to Rafael Nadal after a pulsating, titanic battle spread over nearly seven hours and completed in near darkness on the centre court. Widely regarded as the greatest ever final to be played at Wimbledon, every possible adjective has been used to describe the athleticism, the skills, the talents, and the determination of the two players. But, more than anything else, what stood out for the discerning viewers was the spirit in which the match was played. Particularly touching was the way in which they walked off centre court with their arms around each others’ waists. Too often has it been said and written that in this era of professional sport – when the rewards are mind-boggling – that the bad mouthing, swearing, cheating, temper tantrums, and downright bad behavior of professional athletes must be treated as just another spectacle and is part and parcel of professional gamesmanship. Any believer in ‘sportitude’ knows that professional athletes are all too often the role models for youngsters who innocently emulate such boorish behavior thereby spreading the cult of disgusting and abhorrent behavior.
In the tunnel that leads to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the players pass under two lines of poetry by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same; yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it; and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.” The verses are from “If”, a poem that is regularly voted as one of the world’s most popular English poems. It would be nice to think that many youngsters who witnessed the way Nadal and Federer conducted themselves on that Sunday night, both in victory and defeat, came to understand the true meaning of those words.
*Baron Pierre de Coubertin adopted this creed after hearing it from the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, when he spoke at a service for Olympic athletes during the 1908 London Games. Although there have been many versions of this basic message throughout the history of the Games, the creed above, which was introduced at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, is still used today.