Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bad Sports

I won't pretend bad sportsmanship is new. It's not even isolated to the players: when Korean officials aggrieved over judging at the Atlanta games promised vengefully biased reffing in Seoul, they weren't bringing justice to a sport riddled with flaws -- they were making absolutely sure the world knew they were themselves at just as bad as (if not worse than) those from whom they had taken offense. Of course, competitors themselves have cheated or been graceless winners or sore losers as long as they have competed before witnesses. Heck, if you take a page from the French 4x100m relay team playbook (or was that Gary Hall's playbook?), you can be unsportsmanlike before you even compete, then lose and pretend to graciousness. Who would expect better of athletes, when even coaches run out of control? I would like, however, to draw attention to a specatular instance of what I will take the liberty of awarding an Olympic Medal in Bad Sportsmanship.

I'm not going to pretend to know enough about the minutia of World Tae Kwon Do Federation competition rules to be able to discuss whether Cuba had a grievance against officials for disqualifying its competitor Matos. And if it were to turn out that Cuba's grievance were just but hopeless, that wouldn't be the first time, either. What's novel is the actual response Matos provided to his disqualification.

Talking trash over unfortunate calls is common enough that it's unremarkable, and many sports have official mechanisms for handling such behavior with color-coded cards. What's more unusual is shoving a ref to the ground and kicking another in the face so that he required stitches. This is join-the-Olympics-and-get-a-gold-medal quality bad sportsmanship. Losing to a decision -- even a bogus decision -- may leave one without real redress, but the honorable way out is civilized dispute.

Showing the world you can draw blood on a sucker punch against a noncombatant merely suggests the disqualification was warranted, even if for a different reason. Sucker-punches don't show much about one's combat ability, only one's sense of fair play. Evidently, not-so-angelic Ángel Matos never learned that part of the lesson. For those who've never studied it, the tenets of Tae Kwon Do are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. (If you don't like the ITF for political reasons, you can see the tenets here, too.) Matos blew courtesy when he blew self-control, exposing along the way that his spirit was completely dominated by the kind of immediate need of gratification that convinces one he hasn't the fortitude for real perseverance.

Yes, sure: tell me he must have persevered to reach bronze in Tae Kwon Do. Maybe. However, prima donnas who can't keep themselves from hurting those about them shouldn't be surprised to have their competence questioned. Van Damme being sued by stuntmen injured while relying on his supposed expertise for their safety, for example. In this case, I'm surprised Matos isn't in a Chinese jail for assault.

Maybe he can learn some Kung Fu in prison. There could be a film career in it ....

I like to think athletic competition is an opportunity for civilized people, like ancient duellists, to select their weapons and square off without the risk of loss beyond pride. Some people seem to have so little pride in who they are and what they stand for that they do stupid, stupid things out of pride in their self-image, which in my view generally indicates the self-image is being viewed in a fun-house mirror.

Some people watch NASCAR for the crashes, and NHL for the fights. I understand. Some people think fart jokes are funny and laugh when some distracted innocent is injured on a banana peel. There's just no accounting for taste.

Get a real job, Matos.

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