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The Olympics are All About Who Wins and Loses, but Only up to a Point

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Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy celebrate after winning gold (Reuters Photo)

By Mike Rowbottom |

It was, is, will be a classic water cooler discussion point: can you, should you, share sporting success? Can an Olympic title, for instance, properly be shared, as it was, is and will be in the Tokyo 2020 Games men’s high jump?

When Mutaz Barshim, tied with Gianmarco Tamberi on perfect progress to 2.37 meters and three failures at 2.39m, asked his impish question of an official from under the brim of one of his biggest, reddest hats: “Can’t we have two golds?” and got the response “Is possible”, there suddenly opened up a magical doorway through which both men, gladly, stepped.     

As soon as those official words were spoken the entire dynamic was between two competitors. Barshim was grinning, nodding, inviting corroboration with an outstretched hand. Tamberi, suddenly electrified, slammed his hand back in response, briefly leapt on his opponent and then careered away with a primeval cry.

Honestly, I can’t remember seeing anything better in sport.

Now I’m trying to work out exactly why.

As soon as I got back to my little hotel lobby the classic water cooler discussion occurred, although this time beside a machine dispensing cans of Asahi beer, which, I understand, are kept at a satisfactorily cool temperature.

One of my young insidethegames colleagues with a fearsome range and depth of sporting knowledge and experience made the case very clearly that the Olympics were all about finding who was the best and that every proper contest had to have a proper winner.

I totally understood his point of course. Meanwhile, something was nagging at me, at the back of my mind, a previous occasion in athletics, maybe even the high jump…well, it had been a long, hot, busy day.

Today, the point made by my colleague was reframed in a tweet from another seriously knowledgeable observer and commentator upon sport, and a former Olympic athlete himself.

He asked: “I appreciate that it suited both men but isn’t competition what sport is all about? The deal they cut isn’t ‘in the rules’ and is surely against the spirit of sport. It denied us who watch the prospect of a thrilling jump off. Similar parallels in other sports are unthinkable.”

Again. Good point well made. Just not right, I feel.

So closely had the Qatari and the Italian tracked each other throughout a compelling high jump contest that the decision seemed entirely fitting. At the end of a long, intense competition in steamy conditions, the idea that one or other would have to settle for less than his due in an attritional extra round or two working back down the heights was anathema.

And today I recalled the story of how Barshim had not only experienced victory in this same arena earlier in the year, at the athletics test event, but had – and this was the bit I had forgotten – ended up as joint winner. Unfortunate in a way as I wrote the story at the time.

But here are the details, which resonate rather mystically with what came to pass last night:

“Qatar’s world high jump champion Mutaz Barshim had to settle for a share of victory in Tokyo’s National Stadium in the Ready Steady Go meeting serving as a test event for the Olympic competition scheduled to take place less than three months from now.

“Barshim, a two-time Olympic medallist, was one of a handful of foreign athletes taking part in an event that was closed to spectators due to local COVID-19 restrictions and doubled as a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting.

“He finished as joint winner with Japan’s indoor record-holder Naoto Tobe, who cleared 2.35 metres in Karlsruhe two years ago, after a jump-off.

“Both men cleared heights from 2.15m to 2.30m on their first attempts before failing their efforts at 2.33m.

“They then took it in turns to attempt 2.33m, 2.31m and 2.29m to decide the winner before settling for shared spoils after a long competition.”

Perhaps Barshim didn’t fancy another pointless slog like that at the end of an exhausting competition in horrendous heat and humidity…

Part of the resonance of this incident stems from the history of recent injuries with which both athletes have had to contend.

Barshim, second on the all-time list with his 2014 clearance of 2.43m, has had big problems since then with a back injury that turned out to be a stress fracture. After bronze at London 2012, he took silver in Rio and secured world titles in 2017 and 2019, but the gold many believed was his due evaded him – until yesterday.

Tamberi, meanwhile, wrecked his ankle less than three weeks before the Rio Games making a third attempt at 2.41m in the Monaco Diamond League meeting, having raised his Italian record to 2.39m.

Doggedly, he attended the Rio Games, his leg encased in plaster, the same plaster he displayed last night, with the words “Road To Tokyo” on it, and the year 2020 crossed out and replaced with 2021. At those Games, he was a tearful spectator as Olympic gold was won with a clearance of 2.37m.

As chance would have it, I travelled back to Rome on the same plane as the Italian team. Tamberi wore the same dark blue tracksuit as his returning compatriots, but there was a mournful air about him despite his best efforts.

With regard to sporting precedents for the shared gold – they exist.

Sharing a victory is a powerful instinct among competitors at certain heightened moments – as such it represents a profound shift of values as the standard self-centredness of elite sport, necessary for performance, gives way to something more generous, more important.

At the inaugural London Marathon in 1981, famously, Dick Beardsley of the United States and Denmark’s Inge Simonsen, instinctively joined hands to cross the line together as joint winners. That instinct seemed to derive from a feeling that the new event was, profoundly, about people coming together for something they had in common rather than trying to beat each other.

Nobody execrated them. What happened, unplanned, is still celebrated in the sport.

Perhaps the best known example of a major title being shared was the Commonwealth Games of 1982, where England’s Mike McFarlane and Scotland’s 1980 Olympic 100m champion Allan Wells shared the 200m gold after both had clocked 20.43sec.

But there is an Olympic precedent, as olympedia.org records.

At the 1908 London Games, the men’s pole vault was shared by United States athletes Alfred Gilbert and Ed Cook, who both achieved 3.71 metres, although Cook did so in the qualifying round.

The marathon, in which Dorando Pietri of Italy came so famously close to winning before collapsing several times in the stadium, had a direct effect on the competition. The olympedia.org read: “The closing stages of the competition were considerably delayed as they coincided with the dramatic happenings at the finish of the marathon. Because of the time factor, the officials decided against holding jump-offs for first and third places and, in an unusual decision, two gold and three bronze medals were awarded.”

These examples, however, are perhaps in a different category, impelled by the exigencies of time, or timing. Instead, the Barshim-Tamberi accord was entirely voluntary. And the two are now eternally linked in Olympic history in an act of sportsmanship and mutual respect. It was a genuine demonstration of that tag word International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has now jammed onto the old Olympic motto like some kind of Christmas bauble – “together”.

What took place in the Olympic Stadium on Sunday night was most akin, I would argue, to what happened on the final hole of the final match of the very bitterly contested 1969 Ryder Cup golf match at Royal Birkdale between the United States and what was then just the Great Britain team.

Faced with a three-foot putt to draw the match, Britain’s Tony Jacklin, who had won the Open title two months earlier, was not given the chance to make his shot as Jack Nicklaus, by that time one of the legends of the game, intervened to pick up his opponent’s marker as he retrieved his own ball from the hole into which he had just despatched it. This guaranteed the match’s end with the scores level, at 16-16, for the first time in the history of the competition.

“I don’t think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity,” Nicklaus told his opponent.

The noble gesture was, how shall we say, hugely disappreciated by some of Nicklaus’s team mates, most notably the team captain, Sam Snead. It differed profoundly in tone from the one set earlier when Britain’s captain Eric Brown had – reportedly – told his players not to search for the opposition’s ball if it ended up in the rough, and America’s Ken Still had – reportedly – stood too close to Britain’s Maurice Bembridge while he was putting.

Years later, Nicklaus and Jacklin, firm friends, combined to create a new course in Florida. They named it The Concession.

Barshim and Tamberi are also long-time friends, bound by appreciation of each other’s talent and sympathy for each other’s vicissitudes.

Apparently they enjoyed a gentle stroll together through the Olympic Village in the wake of their historic interaction. While they are unlikely to combine in building a new stadium in the near future they have nevertheless made a lasting contribution to the legacy of their sport.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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