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Captain of Canada's equestrian skill-at-arms team

As childhood friends can attest, I was never one of nature's athletes. Perhaps because of this, the two athletes I most admired were people who mastered not only the practice of sport but also its virtues.

Terry Fox was more than a prolific runner, and Jackie Robinson was more than an accomplished second baseman, because each man's character was equal to his physical prowess. Each chose to be as much a champion for the weak as the embodiment of the strong, and to press his sporting talents into the cause of public service.

Their lives embodied the ethic that the values of sport - fair play, gallantry toward teammates and adversaries alike, equality of opportunity in the pursuit of excellence, humility in victory and grace in defeat - are cornerstone convictions of an honourable society. The ideal of the level playing field expresses the universal yearning for a just and meritocratic world.

Although these are values shared by all sports, I have observed them most in the one I know best. Equestrianism is one of the few sports where men and women compete with and against one another on terms of absolute equality. Rarer still, as a partnership between one athlete who holds the reins and one who cannot speak for himself, equestrianism calls on the human rider's decency and compassion to put the welfare of the horse ahead of personal ambition.

For 6,000 years, equestrianism has been the source of the code - indeed of the very word - of chivalry.

In the aftermath of the public reaction to the national "own the podium" effort for the Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics, Canadian athletes have been confronted with the question of whether their sports' values are at odds with the determined pursuit of competitive success.

Those who suggest there's a conflict between sportsmanship and an unabashed yearning for victory misunderstand the essence of international competition. When we represent Canada internationally, we serve not only as contenders in our chosen sports but also as ambassadors of our national identity. On and off the field, our words and deeds necessarily project the values of our country and the vision of the nation Canadians aspire to create.

Because of this, our athletes have a responsibility to greet the world with the conviction that not only can Canadians be the best but that they have no business striving for anything less. The ultimate medal tally is inconsequential. The spirit of relentless national resolve, in the face of the very best that the rest of the world has to offer, is everything. While having the humility to acknowledge that no one country always owns the podium, we are too proud to aim any lower.

As someone who has placed both first and last in international events, I can say in all sincerity that there is no greater athletic honour than to carry the Maple Leaf into competition. It is a privilege that no victory can dwarf, that no defeat can diminish, and that can only nourish a belief that however many or few medals we may bring home, Canada's rightful place is atop the world.

Akaash Maharaj was a triple gold medalist at the 2008 International Tent Pegging Championships. He will ride for Canada next week at the 2010 event in New Delhi.