Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, said that "the important thing is not to win, but to take part." This noble sentiment goes along with the 1894 Olympic motto of "Citius, Altius, Fortius"—higher, faster, stronger. Events at the Rio games could perhaps add an asterisk or two for "really high" and also "really low" when it comes to the behavior of the competitors.
Let's start with "higher" and the best example of true Olympic spirit that we may ever see. On August 16th, and at four laps from the end of a heat for the women's 5000 m race, New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin tripped forward and created a collision with the American runner Abbey D’Agostino, trailing close behind her. Both runners tangled up and tumbled to the turf. When Hamblin remained on the ground, D'Agostino, instead of continuing her run at a time when she could have still been competitive, bent down and encouraged and helped Hamblin to her feet.
Both athletes continued to encourage each other as they tried to continue the run, but eventually D'Agostino drifted to the very back and Hamblin went on ahead and finished in second to last place. Hamblin waited at the finish line for D'Agostino where they both embraced and shared a hug and some kind words. These athletes, who had trained for years for this event where they both wanted to win and move on to the final, shared moments of human compassion. Instead of exclusively focusing on their own race, they instead helped each other.
At the other end of the behavioral spectrum, the 2016 Rio Games have also given us an all time example for the worst sporting actions. Ironically, it was in judo. Dr. Jigoro Kano, founder of judo, was the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee (1909-1938). In 1915 Kano wrote that judo's ultimate goal is "discipline...to be utilized as a means to self-perfection, and thenceforth to make a positive contribution to society." This is a noble objective and it is typically evident during competition.
Except it wasn't at the end of the match between Egyptian Islam El Shehaby and Israeli Or Sasson on August 12. A key part of the decorum in judo is to bow and shake hands after the match is finished. After suffering defeat to Sasson, El Shehaby refused to do either and instead went to leave the mat area. He was called back and reprimanded by the referee to bow to his opponent, Sasson, whereupon he gave a brief head nod.
This flaunting of etiquette was against both Olympic ideals, but moreover that of judo, which has a deeply rooted tradition of martial arts respect. For this breach, El Shehaby was condemned by the Egyptian Olympic Committee and sent home.
These examples reveal that while we can aspire to many ideals, we often fail to adhere to their practice in real life. This is certainly not a short coming restricted to high performance athletes, of course. It was interesting for me to see these events unfold having just read a paper in the journal Current Biology entitled "Cross-Cultural Sex Differences in Post-Conflict Affiliation following Sports Matches."
The authors, Joyce Benenson and Richard Wrangham, examined the "male warrior hypothesis" in the context of sport. This hypothesis suggests that success in group activities, like hunting and war, require bonding and resolution at the end of the activities to allow for group harmony in the future. Since these activities were historically mostly conducted by men, the suggestion was that, after a conflict, men should cooperate more than women. Cooperative behaviors were defined by things such as friendly physical contact, like hand shakes, a pat on the back, etc.
Benenson and Wrangham looked at post-match cooperative behavior of hundreds of players after matches for tennis, table tennis, badminton, and boxing. The results suggest that male athletes are more predisposed to these behaviors than are the female athletes. Except not in the 5000 m race and not in judo at the 2016 Olympic Games.