Sunday, February 21, 2010

Apolo Ohno: A Good Sport

Apolo Anton Ohno at the Short track speed skat...Image via Wikipedia

I must have been around eleven years old and starting out on the horse show circuit, when my father took me aside and said something I've never forgotten. "What you're doing is a privilege. Always congratulate whoever gets first place and, even if you don't win a single thing, be sure to ride out of the arena with a smile on your face. It will make you look like a pro and people will respect you for it."

Kids notice a lot more than grown-ups give them credit for and I noticed that not everyone had gotten my father's message. Not even the adults were consistent about it, but I knew there was a difference between those who were and those who weren't, and I liked the former better than the latter. They just seemed happier.

I don't know if Apolo Ohno's father ever gave him similar advice, but I was proud of Apolo last night. Paired against two Canadians (brothers no less) and two Koreans, he was on his own for the 1000 meter speed skate. It was one of those times I wished I'd been on the team if only to run interference for him. As it was, despite finishing in medal position, what happened off the ice impressed me more than what happened on it.

He'd just covered his skating blades and was exiting the arena when a reporter caught him and asked about the race. He smiled, said he was satisfied, and had "left it all out on the ice." Later, he explained he felt he could have done better, but was happy with the outcome. The reporter mentioned that he now exceeded Bonnie Blair's previous Winter Olympics record for the number of medals won by an American, but Apolo seemed more interested in his performance in this particular race, one which he'd never won previously.

During the interview, he didn't blame the other competitors nor did he berate himself or indicate a bronze medal was somehow beneath him. He was gracious and every bit a pro. As much as I admire the snowboarders' ability to maintain perspective, I also admire Apolo's maturity and determination to be professional, especially when he might have every reason to feel disappointed.

The Olympic broadcasts are selective. There's only so much air time available and it has to be carefully budgeted so as to highlight the elite athletes. We're accustomed to the instant debriefing in which private thoughts and impressions are made public; inquiring minds want to know. When someone like Apolo responds with gratitude for his opportunities, acceptance of responsibility for his mistakes, and a gracious appreciation for what he's received, it raises the whole process to a higher level. It reminds us that we're never so accomplished or successful that we can opt out of being a good sport. Someone is always watching.

(GNU Free Documentation Image of Apolo Ohno at the 2006 Winter Olympics via Wikipedia)

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