There are enough statements from athletes and coaches about the desperate importance of winning to fill a home.
But there are just as many actions by the most competitive among them underscoring the sanctity of fair play that make you wish could be replicated more often in our daily lives.
Why is fairness the standard operating procedure in sport, even professional sport where winning means so much, and so rare in other areas of competition like business, politics and so many aspects of social life?
Why are cheats the most despised people in sport but are held in high esteem elsewhere? Why would a doper banned for life in athletics, or a football referee similarly sanctioned for fixing a match, find no difficulty getting elected to high office in politics?
The notion of fairness runs in the veins of sportspeople. They recoil at its breach.
They shame and dissociate themselves with cheats. Conversely, they celebrate those who show fair play with trophies, medals and honourable mentions.
They establish rules that make clear what is right and what is wrong. But most often, it is not even the letter of these rules that most impresses the dispassionate bystander. It is the spirit behind the rules and adherence to it even in circumstances where there are no written laws governing particular incidents.
UNAWARE OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES
Let’s start with one example: Late in the 1999 FA Cup fifth-round match between Arsenal and Sheffield United, a United player kicked the ball out of play to allow for the treatment of a team mate who was lying injured in the field of play. In such circumstances, the rules dictate that the resultant throw-in goes to the opposing team.
But the unwritten spirit of fair play dictates that the player throwing in the ball gives it back to the team of the injured player so that the game can resume exactly where it was before it was interrupted.
However, in this case, Arsenal’s Nwankwo Kanu, apparently unaware of the circumstances leading to the throw-in, collected the ball on the right flank of the field and floated it with precision to Marc Overmars who slammed it in the United goal as Sheffield players watched in consternation.
They angrily remonstrated with Arsenal players. The goal, which won the game 2-1 for the Gunners, was perfectly legitimate but it left such a bitter taste in the mouth that something had to be done.
Arsene Wenger, whatever Arsenal fans think of him, is a decent man.
And a great sportsman, too.
Agreeing that his team had won legally but unfairly, he walked over to Steve Bruce, the Sheffield United manager and offered him a replay. Bruce accepted. The offer was forwarded to the English FA which agreed to it and arranged the replay match 10 days later.
GOALKEEPER'S MEDICAL ATTNETION
The Gunners still won 2-1 but the spirit of fair play on the part of Wenger is what is remembered most.
His willingness to risk a win already in the bag just so as to be rid of the whiff of unfairness, added to his accolades.
One of the most sterling examples of exemplary sportsmanship was shown by West Ham United player, Paolo di Canio, who was awarded Fifa's Fair Play Award for 2001 for "a special act of good sportsmanship."
This happened on December 16, 2000 during West Ham's league game against Everton at Goodison Park.
In that match, Everton’s goalkeeper Paul Gerrard, was writhing in pain on the ground in his penalty area when a well-placed Di Canio received a cross from team mate Trevor Sinclair. An empty goal faced Di Canio and all he had to do was head the ball in.
That would almost certainly have given West Ham a 2-1 win.
But instead of scoring, the Italian forward caught the ball as if he were a goalkeeper and then pointed to the writhing Gerrard on the ground. The match was stopped to allow for the goalkeeper’s medical attention.
All of Goodison Park rose to give the player a standing ovation and, as noted, his act was rewarded by the game’s highest authorities.
In football, when a player goes down on the ground injured, it is expected that whoever has the ball will kick it outside the field of play to allow medical personnel to make their intervention.
It is considered grossly unsportsmanlike to go on playing in such adverse circumstances, however enticing your advantage may be.
But in the spirit of fairness, the team that kicks out the ball in favour of an injured opponent and thereby loses it gets it back in the resultant throw-in. In everyday business and social life, if you refuse to pay somebody for goods or services rendered by pointing out a clause in fine print that an unsuspecting supplier failed to read, you can be hailed as being smart. None other than US President Donald Trump is said to have made his billions like that and many people admire him for it. But in the sports field, short-changing an opponent sets you up for damnation, which is sometimes never forgotten.
At all times, sportsmen and women are expected to exhibit qualities of not just keen competition and a supreme desire to win, but others such as self-control and a healthy respect for opponents whom they should treat as they themselves would like to be treated.
It is the pursuit of fairness that has led international sports organizations to invest millions of dollars in space age drug testing facilities to smoke out doping cheats while at the same time shaming them to such an extent that they become sports non-persons.
There are things we do in ordinary life and which we take to be normal but which are considered as bad manners in the sports field.
Take for example gloating after success. Away from the sports field, it is the norm.
But telling the world how good you are and how unworthy your defeated opponent was is conduct unbecoming. It is not for you to tell us how good you are; it is for us to make that judgment.
Denigrating an opponent is especially odious. There is a price to pay for it and one of the world’s greatest athletes did pay this price.
Carl Lewis was the pre-eminent athlete who dominated the 100 and 200 metres and the long jump event for almost two decades – 1979 to 1997.
He was also the US national track team anchor leg man in the 4x100 metres relay.
In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he equalled the venerable Jesse Owens record of four Olympic gold medals in these events which Owens had achieved in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
He won the long jump event a staggering 65 consecutive times in a span of 10 years, making that one of history’s longest winning streaks. He broke 10 seconds for the 100 meters 15 times and 20 seconds for the 200 meters 10 times.
For these and a whole lot more, he was voted the International Association of Athletics Federation’s "World Athlete of the Century" and "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee.
The premier US athletics magazine, Sports Illustrated, voted him "Olympian of the Century.”
These were just some of more prominent accolades that he chalked up. But Carl Lewis had his Achilles Heel: he was immodest. He praised himself and belittled those he defeated.
The greatest hurdler of the last century, the modest-to-a-fault Edwin Moses, once said of his US team mate: "He rubs it in too much. A little humility is in order. That's what Carl lacks."
His team mates, the American public, potential sponsors – just about everybody – turned their backs on him and he got far less in return for his stupendous talent.
In sport, a sore loser is described as a person who takes defeat badly.
He or she cannot accept personal responsibility for the loss and the blame must always be somebody else’s.
When he finally started losing, Carl Lewis was one such loser. And he was, of course, a bad winner. He gloated.
The cake for the most destructive mouth in sport throughout history could very well be taken by Muhammad Ali’s.
He is the one who had the sharpest comments on the abilities and looks of his opponents. But underlying all that cascade of words was the evident purpose of promoting his fights. He really didn’t mean to offend; it was all show.
And he said as much in the company of Joe Frazier when both were retired.
Professional heavyweight boxing, after all, is show business of the highest kind.
As a person, Ali was a true sportsman and one of his most prominent victims, George Foreman, paid him that tribute on losing his title to him in the then Zaire in 1974.
“The best punch of that fight,” Foreman would say later, “was the one that was never landed. As I lost balance and staggered backwards with my guard down, Ali had his right hand perfectly placed to finish me off.
“I would have done it myself if I was in his position. But he held back and let me fall on my own. That, to me, made him the greatest fighter of all time.”
The professionalization of sport was inevitably going to result in result in a sharp rise in unethical behaviour. Where money is to be made, a lot of caution goes out of the window.
The betting industry, in particular, has put outcomes in a variety of sports in doubt and fans may no longer be sure whether the football, cricket or rugby match they are watching is not pre-determined.
But despite all this, resilience abounds. Lifelong bans are routinely meted out for unethical conduct and, unlike in the political sphere for instance, shame means something in sport.
Winning fairly, the result of persistent endeavour and austere discipline, will never lose its lustre, no matter the contamination of the environment around it. That is why for me the biggest deal at the moment is not 2022. It is October, 2019, as Eliud Kipchoge attempts to become the first man in history to run the marathon in less than two hours.