anne mikolay 2012 120The closing ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics was held at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 21st. Sports fans will remember the Rio Olympics for various reasons, including the stellar performance of the U.S. women’s basketball team and the contrastingly disappointing behavior of Olympic medalist, Ryan Lochte, who falsely claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station. Neither will stand out in my mind, however; going forward, the Rio games will define sportsmanship for me.

Sportsmanship, as defined by a simple google search, is “the ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in a game or athletic event.” Sportsmanship, or the lack thereof, was called into question on August 7th when Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten unsuccessfully navigated a slippery curve in her pursuit of an Olympic medal, flipped off her bike, and crashed head first on the side of the road. Cyclist after cyclist sped by van Vleuten, casting doubt upon the existence of fair play. How on earth, I wondered, could those cyclists pass van Vleuten without rendering aid? Surely I would have stopped to help a person in such obvious distress...or would I? With an Olympic medal and potentially millions of dollars in endorsement deals at stake, would I have risked everything to stop my race and help a competitor? I don’t know! After untold hard work and training, what Olympic contender would throw it all away on another athlete who, quite likely, would not stop to assist if the tables were turned? The Olympics, after all, is about winning, being the best; thus, sportsmanship takes a back seat to grabbing the gold.

On August 16th, just days after Annemiek van Vleuten’s accident, two strangers collided, and sportsmanship usurped the pursuit of glory.

New Zealand distance runner Nikki Hamblin and US runner Abbey D’Agostino were laps away from the end of the 5000m in Rio when Hamblin stumbled and fell. D’Agostino, directly behind her, fell to Hamblin’s side. D’Agostino jumped up and pulled Hamblin to her feet; the two strangers raced on. However, D’Agostino’s leg was injured, and she went down again. Hamblin stopped running and reached for D’Agostino, telling her “we have to finish this.” These two Olympic contenders did not think twice about helping one another. Falling behind and losing did not matter; offering assistance and encouragement to a fellow human in need was paramount. Thanks to the mutual kindness of two strangers, sportsmanship took center stage at Rio.

Why did the distance runners from New Zealand and the United States interrupt their race to Olympic gold to help one another? Was it natural instinct? Was it because of something their parents taught them? With so much at stake, who among us is certain he or she would do the same and forfeit a long held dream to help a total stranger? I’d like to think I would, but I can’t say for certain. Regardless, the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics will forever define true sportsmanship. Let’s learn and apply the definition!