WHEN is celebration considered too much celebration? This is the question that came to the fore last week, when the US women’s football (or soccer, as the Americans like to refer to it) team beat Thailand 13-0. To neutral fans and impartial observers, the over-exuberance of the American team was tantamount to kicking the opposing team when they were already flat on the ground and constituted extremely unsportsmanlike conduct, to say the least.
This is not the first time that an American team has been thus accused.
The US professional basketball teams that represented the country in the Olympics–the original Dream Team as well as its succeeding incarnations–were also similarly characterized. Winning by lopsided margins, they were often seen jumping about, high-fiving and just about dancing around the court as they scored at will, giving the impression that they were making fun of and insulting their opponents in the process.
Sports is a spectacle and, as such, is meant to be a lot of fun, both for those who play in them and those who watch them. It is therefore difficult, almost impossible, to restrain the players from showing extreme gestures of happiness, whenever they are winning games, especially by extremely huge margins. Showboating, as it is often referred to, is most common in team sports like basketball, but practically all team sports–especially American ones–have them aplenty. It is part of their sporting culture, and indeed, part of the American character. They love to celebrate, be it to chants of USA, to the wild fist-pumping and even the uniquely American routine of body-bumping.
Sporting culture, though, is not necessarily the same elsewhere. And not in all sports, I should add.
Think about the fighting arts, as an example. Boxers pummel each other to a bloody pulp in the best of times, but as soon as one is rendered helpless and incapacitated, you can be sure that the victor will show utmost respect for the victim by immediately ceasing hostilities and retreating to a neutral corner. Such is the chivalry that exists in these blood sports, that to go against this accepted code of conduct would be to put a fighter in a very bad light indeed.
I remember the epic Muhammad Ali–George Frazier encounters in the 1970s. Both men fought each other in memorable slugfests, both ending up as victor, but also suffering as the vanquished. And yet, despite their encounters in the ring, both men held a healthy respect for each other, which they showed especially when they were beating each other up.
But fighting arts or not, elsewhere outside of the US, etiquette is seen to be a sporting man’s virtue, equaling even playing prowess itself as being as important for an athlete to possess. That’s why it is not strange to see Sebastian Coe to be honored as Lord Coe and living the title quite fittingly. Sir Ian Redgrave, Sir Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton–these are just some of the sporting legends that remind us all of the need for character in the middle of a sporting struggle.
I can’t fault the American women for expressing their joy at winning. Not at all. For the work they put in for this World Cup, they deserve to be winning in the fashion they did. But I also think that playing a sport–and by extension, winning or losing in one–is real life gamified. It demands that athletes do their best to win, but when they do, to triumph with magnanimity and respect for the vanquished.
Kudos to the American women for dominating their opponents as much as they did. But next time they should be a bit more respectful of their opponents, just as Ali was with Frazier when the latter declared that he could not anymore continue to fight in that unforgettable classic, “The Thrilla in Manila.”