Sunday, 12 August 2012

Olympics Week Two: Respect

"Respect" - a word that can mean some rather different things depending on the context and the place in which it is used.

In the street language (not intended in a negative or derogatory sense) of cities characterised by the presence of differing cultures, its use has a fundamental and worrying ambiguity. It can be used as a greeting between friends - "Respect" - and has an interesting parallel among some Asian young people of everyone in the group shaking hands with each other when they meet or separate, or a new arrival making a point of shaking hands with everyone as they arrive. It's use can represent a genuine courtesy. Or it can represent the intimidation and threat of a gang member who demands "Respect" - that is, fear and obeisance.

It has also become a strap-line with a variety of meanings in the realm of general politics (think George Galloway) and the politics of anti-racism, and for social organising in response to various forms of discrimination. The English Football Association has used "Respect" as the title of a programme aimed at improving the experience of everyone involved in football at every level.

During the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the President of the International Olympic Committee said to the athletes about to compete in the Games (my emphasis added):
Now you have a chance to become true Olympians. That honour is determined not by whether you win but by how you compete. Character counts far more than medals. Reject doping. Respect your opponent.
Jacques Rogge here used the word "respect" in its original meaning, asking the athletes to treat their fellow competitors with the proper regard due to them as persons and as fellow participants in a grand enterprise for which they have all prepared at some effort, a regard that represents a profound equality between the multiple gold medal winner and the athlete who comes last in the qualifying round of their only Olympic event.

From listening to media coverage during this week, it appears that some events have their own unwritten courtesies, their own ways of showing respect for other competitors. So the winner of the heptathalon event is, by custom and practice, accompanied by the other competitors for the lap of honour round the stadium. In rowing, the medals were presented on a pontoon without a podium, with all three medal winning crews on the same level. In part this has a practical aspect (three crews of eight would fall off a traditional podium) but, according to the coverage I heard, it is also intended as a sign of respect for the non-winning crews. I am sure that there are other examples like this tucked away among the many sports represented in the Olympic Games.

But what about the behaviour of the super stars of the Games? Do their trade mark performances before and after their events really show proper respect for their fellow competitors? Kris Akabusi has written something along these lines: Akabusi: Bolt gives to athletics, but also takes away. Usain Bolt might be the most obvious example, but in the "celebrity games" there are others who have gone into events with a presumption of success that has not always materialised. The news media certainly have had a part to play in this, but one cannot therefore take away from the athletes themselves their share of the responsibility. And, after an event, what is the point at which a rightful celebration of success becomes an arrogance towards fellow competitors?

Returning to Jacques Rogge's use of the word "respect". Exactly what is the shade of meaning that we believe athletes should give to that word in terms of the way in which they compete and behave?

Kris Akabusi suggests Kirani James as a counter example to Usain Bolt:
Just look at Kirani James, the Olympic 400 metres champion and Grenada's first ever medallist. He embodies the Olympic spirit: what a great example he is setting for youngsters all over the world. After he won the final, he went and shook the hand of every single competitor. When he beat Oscar Pistorius in the semi-final, he even went over to trade his number with the South African as James was so humbled to have competed against a man who has overcome so much just to be able to run in these Games.
And I am sure that there have been other examples of this style of respect for fellow competitors during the course of the Games.

[UPDATE: This story, too, demonstrates a form of respect for an opponent that deserves to be better known: A moment of Olympic glory that could never be caught on camera.]

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