The motto of the Olympic Games is Citius, Altius, Fortius – faster, higher, stronger – and we can expect athletes to push themselves a millimetre higher and a fraction of a second faster every four years. The Olympics are about the accomplishments of the human body, but they are also, sometimes, about what is best in the human spirit.
This week, 23-year-old Canadian long-track speed skater Gilmore Junio sent a text to his competitor and teammate, Denny Morrison: "Are you ready for the 1,000m, yay or nay?" Mr. Morrison at first thought it was a joke. It was not. Mr. Junio was offering to give up his place – his rightfully earned place – in the 1,000-metre race, in favour of someone who had not qualified for the race, namely, Mr. Morrison.
Mr. Morrison had been Canada's best hope for a medal in the distance, but he'd tripped and fallen in the trials late last year that selected Canada's team. Maybe the selection process should have been different; maybe he should have been on the 1,000-metre roster. But it wasn't, and he wasn't. According to the rules, the right to race in the Olympics belonged to the guy who qualified, fair and square, and whose name was on the program. That would be Gilmore Junio.
But sometimes, simply following the letter of the rules isn't enough. Sometimes, you have to go beyond that, and ask of yourself things that no one else has the right to demand. Mr. Morrison, the Canadian most likely to medal, couldn't get into the ring unless someone stepped out. So Mr. Junio volunteered to be that someone. And Mr. Morrison promptly went on to skate the race of his Olympic career, missing first place by four one-hundredths of a second, and winning silver.
Greater love hath no man than this, that he give up his shot at a medal for the sake of his friends.
The Olympic movement, created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century, was founded in part on ideas that no longer make much sense in the 21st century. The only recently removed ban on professionals and the insistence on amateurism were outdated long ago. They were relics of a world not comfortable with meritocracy, either in society or in sports. But other underlying ideas – of fair play, and competition within the rules – have remained. Athletes must strive to win, but in life as in sports, winning is not all that there is.
"The most important thing," says the Olympic creed, "is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well." And to have fought honourably. We all want to win. But just how far are we willing to go to win, or to cause someone else to lose?
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, American Jesse Owens won four gold medals. One of those was in the long jump. His chief rival in that event was Luz Long, a German athlete. Owens was black. Long was a tall, blond model of the Nazi master race. Yet for the rest of his life, Owens went around telling the story of how he was close to fouling out of the long jump qualifying round, until Long gave him advice on how to overcome his problem. That allowed Owens to make it into the finals on his last attempt. In the final, the two men traded the lead several times, and each broke the Olympic record. Owens won gold, Long took silver – and Long publicly embraced Owens, which was an exceptionally brave thing to do in Nazi Germany, with Hitler watching.
In 2006, at the Turin Olympics, Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner broke a pole during the women's team sprint race. Races are decided by seconds or even fractions of a second; this could have been the end of Canada's medal hopes. But a Norwegian ski coach, Bjornar Haakensmoen, quickly stepped forward and gave Ms. Renner the Norwegian team's spare pole. As a result, the Canadian team of Ms. Renner and Beckie Scott went on to win the silver medal. Norway came fourth. Had Mr. Hakensmoen declined to be the sporting equivalent of a good Samaritan, his country would have medalled. The idea of not helping a competitor, or even just holding off on providing assistance for a few precious seconds, never seems to have occurred to him.
Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth, who is married to Ms. Scott, got a chance to pay the kindness back in Sochi this week. After Russian skier Anton Gafarov broke a ski during a race, Mr. Wadsworth bounded onto the course and swiftly attached a new ski. The Russian did not medal, but at least he got to finish his race.
There are those pushing for Gilmore Junio to be named Canada's flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies. We hope they get their way. Beneath the fractious politics of the Olympics, beyond the billions of dollars wasted on vanity venues, the crass commercialism and the race for celebrity and ratings, there is an Olympic spirit. Mr. Junio represents what is best about it. And no country can ever have too many people like that.