The runner who gave up his place for another

Brothers in arms: a Spanish triathlete won global praise for giving up third place to a rival runner © Twitter

Is sport the last source of real values? As we lose our faith in religion and politics, some have suggested that only athletes still manage to keep the flame of moral conviction alive.

“What a mistake!” This cry, from an excited Spanish commentator, must have seemed like an understatement to British triathlete James Teagle as he took a wrong turn, crashed into a barrier and lost his third-place position in the Santander triathlon. Less than 100m from the finish line, a single mistake had cost him everything.

Then a remarkable thing happened. The man who had overtaken him, a young Spaniard called Diego Méntrida, looked over his shoulder, slowed and stopped before the finish. The two shook hands as Teagle stepped across the line to claim third place, with Méntrida in fourth.

We want to feel that we would act just as honourably in Méntrida’s place. Indeed, we often hold up athletes as models of good behaviour. So what part does sport play in teaching us how to act?

Traditionally, religions were expected to give people a moral education. Yet Britain is becoming less religious: in 2016, 53% told a survey that they had no religion. Some would say we are in need of an alternative source of moral guidance.

But, it is argued, we are also losing faith in other traditional moral authorities. In the past, we looked to political leaders to set an example. Today, however, we tend to think of politicians as unprincipled and self-serving – hardly a good source of values.

Some have therefore proposed that sport could teach people ethical values. Anthropologist Mari Womack argues that sport works like religion, in that both “convey their message by means of powerful symbols”. By acting honourably on the field, athletes show us how we ought to behave.

Aristotle wrote that the highest of personal values was “great-spiritedness”, a term describing someone who is generous, courteous and gracious in both victory and defeat: all traits that we associate with top athletes.

Moreover, sporting figures can use their influence to act as moral guides in political matters. Earlier this year, a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford forced the government to reverse its decision to cancel free school meals for poorer children over the summer holidays.

But there are limits on sport’s capacity to provide moral values. We also often see athletes behaving badly: at this year’s US Open, tennis player Novak Djokovic was disqualified for hitting a line judge in the neck with a ball.

Public tantrums can be part of the fun of watching sports – but they make athletes a less likely source of moral values.

While people’s trust in religious and political leaders has fallen, so has their faith in sports. Major sporting events and teams are very commercialised. A sense that sport is all about money makes it harder to look up to athletes.

And moral statements by athletes have not always been widely welcomed. In 2016, when American football star Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest against racist violence, he was dropped by his team, although many fans defended his actions.

So, is sport the last source of moral values?

In the running

Yes, say some. Sport encourages us to identify with athletes and follow their moral example. This explains why we are often horrified when athletes’ behaviour falls short of our moral standards: we expect them to set an example for their fans. With their broad influence, and because they stand outside political conflicts, athletes can provide moral guidance for political issues.

Not at all, say others: there are other sources of moral values. Religion remains important to many people. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country set an example by selflessly devoting time and money to charitable causes. We can also look to our history for examples of self-sacrifice: even recently, over the weekend, we commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

You Decide

  1. If you had been Diego Méntrida, would you have let James Teagle overtake you, or would you have tried to beat him?
  2. Who do you think make better role models for most people — athletes, religious leaders or politicians? Explain why.

Activities

  1. Choose the athlete you most admire. It can be somebody who competes alone, or as a member of a team. Write a short description and then list five reasons why you think highly of them.
  2. Write a short story about the race from the point of view of either Diego Méntrida or James Teagle. What thoughts do you think were going through their minds?

Some People Say...

“Sportsmanship for me is when a guy walks off the court and you really can't tell whether he won or lost, when he carries himself with pride either way.”

Jim Courier, American tennis player

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that sports teams can be an important part of people’s collective identities. By identifying ourselves with a team and its other fans, we become part of a vast social network, providing us with a sense of belonging. The effect is even more powerful when the team represents a particular town or city, adding a further bond between neighbours and enhancing a person’s local identity.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not everyone should have the same values. Some argue that morality is objective, and thus there can only be one valid set of moral values (although they may disagree on what it is). Others argue that for practical reasons, if people are to get on with one another, they must share the same values. But there are some, such as existentialists, who think that universal values keep people from living authentic lives. They argue that everyone should be expected to create their own values.

Word Watch

Triathlon
A sporting event consisting of three separate contests, usually swimming, cycling and running. The word derives from the Greek words for “three”, treis, and “competition”, athlos.
Anthropologist
Someone who studies human beings and societies. The word “anthropology” comes from the Greek “anthropos”, meaning “human”. It developed as a subject in Europe in the 19th century, although some regard the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun as the first anthropologist.
Symbols
Markers that represent something other than themselves. Although they can be physical markings or objects, spoken words, sounds and even actions and gestures can also function as symbols. In recent decades entire societies are often characterised by means of shared symbols.
Aristotle
An Ancient Greek philosopher regarded as one of the most important thinkers in history. Aristotle wrote on a wide variety of subjects – ranging from philosophy and politics to biology. He was also the tutor of Alexander the Great. His influence spread far beyond ancient Greece: his works inspired Islamic scholars, Christian theologians and, later, political thinkers.
US Open
A major tennis tournament held once a year in New York City. It is one of the oldest tennis tournaments in the world, starting in 1881 – just after Wimbledon, which had begun four years earlier in 1877.
Commercialised
When an organisation or event is exploited to maximise profits, often at the expense of its fans.
National anthem
A country’s national song, often sung at major civic ceremonies and sometimes at sporting events. In many countries it is expected that everyone present will stand while it is performed. Protesting against a national anthem, by kneeling rather than standing, or by refusing to sing it, can be a powerful, and often controversial, way of making a point.
Battle of Britain
A campaign in World War Two fought between the British Royal Air Force and the German air force, the Luftwaffe. More than 1,500 British pilots were killed in the fighting. It was the first military campaign to take place entirely in the air. Around 20% of British pilots were from foreign countries: the No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron shot down more German planes than any other squadron.

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