This morning the US is celebrating Ashton Eaton’s record breaking performance in the two day decathlon, which was a thing of beauty. However, the most memorable moment of the two day event occurred at the end of the 1500M race. It was memorable not because of what Eaton did, breaking another world record in 4:14.47, but how he won the race. You see, Eaton was not the fastest runner in the 1500M; that title belonged to Curtis Beach, a sophomore at Duke University. And if you watch the race here (I can’t embed the video) you will see that Beach slowed down over the final 200M to allow Eaton to win and break the record. Beach didn’t run out of gas; he was not fatigued. He did it out of respect for Eaton. Since Beach had no chance of making the Olympics or winning the two day event (he finished the event in 11th place), he felt that Eaton deserved to break the record and finish first in front of his home crowd.
I suppose some may think that Beach should have won the race and set the world record on his own. I understand that point of view and its merit. A fair argument can be made that it’s more important to respect the game than the competitor, and when you don’t try your hardest you are insulting the competition and the competitor. In my opinion, however, his act of sportsmanship shows much more about his good character than anything else.
In Judaism, winning isn’t the only thing as Vince Lombardi famously said. We celebrate the victors, but we equally applaud and hold in high esteem those who know their place, and are willing to let others shine. Indeed, Pirkei Avot, ethics of the fathers, is replete with examples of what it means to have good character. Although his name doesn’t appear in that book, Curtis Beach certainly followed the principles therein.
I’m happy for Ashton Eaton for setting the world record and at the age of 24 is the best athlete in the world who, we hope, will bring home the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics. However, I have just as much admiration and respect for Curtis Beach for showing that rare element of sportsmanship, camaraderie, and brotherhood, that is so often missing from a good competition.