About halfway through televised coverage of the swimming events at this summer’s Olympics in Rio, I had lunch with a friend. This friend is a former NCAA Division I swimmer, who has knowledge about, and personal experience with, many different levels of the competitive world of swimming. She confessed that she had stopped watching the Olympic swimming coverage altogether because of the lack of sportsmanship. She then asked me if I had noticed it too, and admittedly, there were several moments during the Rio Olympic Games were I felt that our nation’s swimmers had missed opportunities to positively represent the sport and the United States.
I have gone back and forth over whether to write this article because of its potentially divisive nature (and I should explicitly state that this is purely an opinion piece), but I think any discussion about sportsmanship will only have a positive impact by bringing more awareness to the subject. Notably, this article defines sportsmanship as an athlete’s display of gratitude, humility and respect for what he or she is doing and the people he or she is doing it with.
Taking a step back, I firmly believe that sportsmanship plays a uniquely important role in swimming. To show good sportsmanship and be a positive reflection of your team is one of the first lessons I recall learning from swimming. Like many swimmers, I first began competing for a summer league swim team where I was taught that after every finished race, you shook the hands of the those swimming in adjacent lanes and told them, “Good swim.” This display of respect was not contingent upon who you were swimming against, what time you went in the race or what kind of mood you woke up in that morning.
Swimming is about molding yourself into a better person, and how you treat your teammates and competitors is an integral part of that transformation. Sometimes it requires giving credit where credit is due, and other times, silence can speak volumes about one’s integrity.
I have never heard booing at a swim meet, and one of the few times I remember ever being reprimanded by my club swim coach was because I wasn’t wearing a team swim cap at practice during a summer training trip. I can’t recall if I was ever told outright, but I at least implicitly understood that the time on the scoreboard was the final arbiter. Water slaps and victory screams were rendered unnecessary by the clock. I was also taught that putting up points for my team was the primary objective, and that any victory by a teammate should be genuinely celebrated as if it was my own.
As a big supporter of United States Swimming, here are a few of the moments that disappointed me in terms of sportsmanship at this summer’s Olympic Games:
- Conor Dwyer pounding his chest and parading around the pool after he had the fastest swim in the qualifying heats of the 400 meter free, only to finish off the podium in the finals. Dwyer would go on to win the bronze in the individual 200 meter free and gold in the 800 free relay. During an interview, when Dwyer was asked which medal meant more to him, he said the individual bronze because getting an individual medal his goal. While it’s great to set individual goals and achieve them, in effect, Dwyer placed his own achievements above those of the team.
- Michael Phelps allowing Chad le Clos‘s shadowboxing to bring down his typically stellar sportsmanship. For a moment, after Phelps collected his last individual gold medal, The Phelps Show celebrations and interviews seemed to overshadow the successes of other U.S. athletes, many of whom only had one brief moment in the sun. Fortunately, Joseph Schooling quickly served up a piece of humble pie to Phelps in the 100 meter fly, which seemed to restore him back to his high standard of sportsmanship.
- The Ryan Lochte debacle. Regardless of how the Brazilian government and U.S. Olympic Committee handled the situation (which was poorly), Lochte owed it to his sport and his country to act with integrity while in attendance at any Olympic function, including after-parties. In future interviews, Lochte failed to admit any wrongdoing, take any accountability or remove innocent parties (i.e. teammates) from scrutiny.
I first began to question whether sportsmanship was on the decline after watching televised coverage of the 2016 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships. I was concerned by Lilly King‘s post-race interview after winning her second individual breaststroke title in the 200 yard distance, where she failed to contribute any of her success to her team. I also raised an eyebrow over the post-race interactions between Cal teammates Jacob Pebley and Ryan Murphy after the 200 yard backstroke finals and Texas teammates Jack Conger and Schooling after the 200 yard butterfly finals. I saw no footage of congratulatory handshakes, hugs or even smiles directed at one another. Although, it is certainly plausible that such footage was edited out, I would expect that after three years of training together in a close environment, one would be quick to a celebrate a teammate’s victory or runner-up finish. At multiple times throughout the NCAA meet, individual success seemed to take precedence over team success, which is the anti-mission of collegiate athletics.
Instead, a good example of what I expect to see among collegiate athletes is Chase Kalisz‘s reaction to Georgia teammate Jay Litherland‘s qualification in the 400 IM at Olympic Trials. Kalisz genuinely seemed happier over Litherland’s Olympic qualification than his own.
As the sport of swimming grows in popularity, are its top athletes doomed to become the self-absorbed egomaniacs that plague other national organizations like the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA)?
I don’t think so.
In spite of the moments of poor displays of sportsmanship at this year’s Olympics, or maybe only a failure to go out of one’s way to display good sportsmanship, there were far many more positive takeaways for Olympic swimmers on Team USA. They bonded in the car singing karaoke. One (Ryan Held) was overcome with emotion realizing he had helped his nation win a gold medal. Another (Missy Franklin) continued to smile and support the team, even when her own Olympic dream was not going as planned. Still another (Maya DiRado) won an unexpected individual gold, but says her greatest Olympic memory is “[j]ust getting to be on a relay with three other swimmers whom I love and admire . . . .” And last but not least, a 19-year-old with five gold medals and three world records, who has been referred to as “the greatest athlete on the planet” (Katie Ledecky), has developed a reputation of “friendliness, calm and modesty.” She has already forfeited millions of dollars in order to enjoy a true college experience with a new set of teammates.
If we continue to insist on good sportsmanship at the grassroots level (i.e. summer league), perhaps swimmers will remain humble at the collegiate and international level. What’s more, perhaps this ingrained humility is what has enabled United States Swimming to be the world’s most successful swimming program in history.