Lack of sportsmanship kicks games when they're down and that's a cheap shot

Phil Jackman

September 13, 1993|By Phil Jackman

Sportsmanship. Remember that apparently outmoded concept?

It wasn't that long ago that people caught up in the competitive end of being a sportsman could take loss or defeat without complaint, or victory without gloating, and treated the opposition with fairness, generosity and courtesy.

Either that or they did a heck of a job of faking it.

These days, it seems, too many labor under the misconception that graciousness, no matter what the situation, is a trait to be abhorred. You got a guy down, kick him. You lose, alibi.

"You show me a good loser," more than one football coach has said, "and I'll show you a loser." And the impressionable believe it.

After we get around to reinventing government by Thanksgiving, it might not be a bad idea to do something about sports, both professional and amateur, serious and casual.

Yesterday, on the television and before the usual half-day blitz of pro games, highlights, analysis, etc., here were the stories greeting those sitting down for leisurely entertainment and enjoyment:

* The volatile situation in Houston, as Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator for the Oilers, takes a series of shots at the team's offensive scheme. Fans are enraged.

* The soap opera in Dallas, as star running back Emmitt Smith remains a holdout and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones makes like Horatius at the bridge. Fans are enraged.

* The isolated shot of the week was not of a guy making a miracle catch in the end zone, but of San Francisco running back Ricky Watters head-butting a guy, for which he drew a $7,500 fine. What does he think this is, the NBA?

* Then there was the argument between Philadelphia owner Norman Braman and ex-employee Reggie White concerning just what it was that prompted the defensive end to decide to play in Green Bay.

Mendacity, back-biting, malice aforethought, talk of bounties on quarterbacks, they were all there -- a veritable Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse updated.

When you think about it, perhaps all this insurgency was in keeping with the attitude prevalent throughout the week.

Just a few days before the footballs began flying, a world champion athlete from China, Wang Junxia, ran a spectacular 10,000-meter race, easily eclipsing the women's record for the event. (Yesterday, Wang set another record, in the women's 3,000).

Even before details of her 29-minute, 31.8-second effort had made it through customs here, scores of people were screaming performance-enhancing drugs and blood-doping. Lynn Jennings, who finished well up the track (fifth) behind Wang at the recent World Championships, was totally judgmental, exclaiming, "Something is wrong, and it is tragic for the sport."

She sobbed: "You devote everything you have to being the best for nothing. You play fair, do it right and get screwed." Case closed, Wang cheated. She and all her Chinese women teammates could not have improved so rapidly.

This seems to be a time-honored reaction from track and field people in the United States. Heck, if our guy or gal got beat, something must be wrong. Lasse Viren had to be blood-doping when he ran the world into the track at a couple of Olympics, right?

The gist of most complaints seems to be that Wang couldn't have improved so much over a relatively short stretch. And even before it was suggested that officials likely miscounted the laps run and Wang might have covered just 24, not 25, which adds about 72 seconds, many were screaming bloody murder.

It's apparently inconceivable to some that, all things being equal, Americans won't always prevail, set records or be the best. Which is ridiculous, of course, because there are so many areas in sport where we are simply in the pack.

It was in 1952 at the Olympics that Emil Zatopek shocked the world by winning all the distance events in Helsinki, the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the marathon. We screamed. Zatopek explained that to beat him, someone would have to train harder )) and better. An interval workout for the Czech star was 50 quarter-miles at less than race pace. Fifty!

Wang's training last winter and spring amounted to the equivalent of a marathon (26 miles) every day.

Perhaps the biggest upset and greatest Olympic victory in U.S. history occurred at this same distance at the 1964 Games in Tokyo. Billy Mills, off an Indian reservation in South Dakota, beat the unbeatable Australian, Ron Clarke, and others.

It was only the fifth race at 10,000 meters for the "Running Brave," and in each one he improved by 30 seconds. I don't recall anyone calling it a hoax and accusing Mills of cheating.

Asked to explain his dramatic and near-instantaneous improvement, Billy answered: "Beats me. For one thing, I didn't know what I was doing."

With regard to Wang and all sports, let's get back to sportsmanship for a change.

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