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The Globe and Mail

There’s more to the Pan Am Games than waving the Maple Leaf

Tom Koch is a Toronto-based ethicist and gerontologist, ranked with black belts in two styles of karate and aikido.

I'm not cheering for Canadian athletes at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. At least, I'm not cheering for them more than for any other athlete competing in the sports I love. And I'm not wearing "red and white," as radio and TV announcements suggest. I'll wear a neutral green and maybe a T-shirt from Japan.

I'll cheer anyone who performs brilliantly, any athlete whose competitive moment celebrates the sport itself. I'll cheer for the amateurs whatever the country of origin, and for the idea that we can all perform at our best and, on those rare days when all the signs are right, perhaps better than we've ever performed before.

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Making the Games a moment of national pride, in which winners and losers are defined by nationhood, is like a dinner party where the focus is on the cook's abilities, rather than the guests for whom the meal is prepared.

Like the Olympics, these Games are about the sports themselves and, at least in theory, the amateurs who dedicate their lives to excellence in their sport.

Arthritis has robbed me of my ability to compete in sports I once loved (cycling, judo, karate). But being unable to compete doesn't mean I love them, or the skills that top athletes exhibit, less. Whether the winner of this or that heat or match is from Cuba, Grenada, Mexico or Venezuela, I'll cheer him or her equally. And if it is a Canadian who mounts the winner's podium, I'll cheer equally for that moment of triumph.

That's the way it is supposed to be and despite the insistence on nationhood over sportsmanship, there will be moments where everyone remembers the purpose of these Games isn't smug national self-aggrandizement.

I've seen what happens when crowds forget their partisanship, if only for a short time. It's unforgettable. In 1984, I was a reporter for CBC-Radio at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics and attended the judo finals. It's a sport I've loved since I was 12 and, that year, Japan's legendary Yasuhiro Yamashita was competing. The greatest practitioner of modern times, he had missed the previous Olympics in Moscow, and thus the only major award in his sport he had not already won, because of a political boycott against Russia.

Mr. Yamashita won his first match but tore or strained a leg muscle and could barely make it off the mat. Everyone groaned, believing his Olympic moment was over. Japan's arch competitors, the South Koreans, seemed politely saddened but relieved. After a delay, Mr. Yamashita returned to the mat, limping badly. The match lasted less than two minutes before, incredibly, he won with a full, perfect throw. The crowd roared.

He was clearly in pain, however, and everyone speculated whether he could win the third and final bout against a large, skilled, Egyptian. That last match lasted perhaps 25 seconds although it seemed much longer. The Egyptian tried two throws and as the second was blocked, Mr. Yamashita fell to his knees, his fingers linked in his opponent's collar, and threw him almost gently for a full decisive, competition-ending ippon. Everyone stood and cheered. It was judo at its finest.

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In almost every venue there were moments of courage and grace, of mutual respect among those who put the idea of amateurism and the love of sport above everything else. I remember interviewing a Canadian judoka who won in his weight class and spoke only praise for his opponents. His main interest was to call his club mates and friends at the hometown pub, who had promised to drink a beer to his performance, win or lose.

If you see me in the crowd, cheering as a Mexican wins his match in Mississauga, a cane by my side, don't think of me as unpatriotic. Cheer with me, instead, for the excellence we, as hosts, encouraged and the internationalism we all seek to promote.

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