Thanks to social media, sportsmanship has taken on proportions well beyond the usual no-cutting-the-course, no-tripping no-brainers. Recently, the brand of sportsmanship that's garnered attention—and been called "inspiring"—includes stopping mid-race to help a fallen competitor, at the cost of personal achievement. Suddenly, cooperation trumps competition, and competitiveness starts to look bad.
Yes, cross country is scored as a team sport, and individuals benefit from the camaraderie of their teammates, but the race is about getting oneself to the finish line as quickly as possible. Athletes in all sports have struggled with the selfishness it takes to be their best, to compete at 110%, to reach their full potential as an athlete while remaining a team player.
Sportsmanship has been a way to ensure that no one goes too far to win, that individual competitiveness doesn't pass into the realm of cheating or impeding other runners. It's been about fairness and honoring the efforts of all competitors, but has not, in the past, gone so far as to sacrifice one's own result to help another runner.
Cross country is demanding, as proven by the reliable number of injured or rubber-legged runners in every race. It happens all the time—at least one collapse or DNF per race since the dawn of the sport. Crumpled cross country runners virtually being a given, race organizers are now savvy to the idea of course marshals and on-site medical personnel to encourage potential finishers, ensure that every individual completes the race under their own power, and render aid to those whose race is over.
Spectating at a girls' high school cross country race in the early 2000s, a competitor collapsed right in front of me. Though apparently uninjured, she lay on the grass, sobbing, as scores of runners streamed by. I must say, it felt cruel not to reach out and help her up, but as I bent toward her, a race official appeared and warned me she'd be disqualified if I did so. Some of the other runners urged her on as they passed by, but no one stopped. Eventually, she pulled herself up and carried on. That was just one of several such instances at the same meet.
Even freshmen understood everyone has good days and bad days; it's that unpredictability of the sport that makes it compelling. Serious injuries were scooped up by medical staff, while the walking wounded limped back to camp, where teammates and someone's homemade cookies helped them move on. Sportsmanship meant congratulating the successful and assuaging those who fell short.
Then, in October, this photo (left) was tweeted from a cross country race held in Minnesota. That's Melanie Bailey, with dark hair, carrying rival Danielle LeNoue on her back. LeNoue injured her patellar and meniscus tendons about two miles into the race, in a secluded area behind some trees. The girls were in the back half of the pack, not in contention for the win. Bailey originally tried putting LeNoue's arm across her shoulder but LeNoue couldn't put weight on her leg, so Bailey suggested the piggyback assist. Bailey carried Lenoue for a quarter-mile before encountering medical staff, where she handed LeNoue off and continued on to finish 178th out of 180.
Originally reported by the Devil's Lake, North Dakota paper, the photo and Bailey's heroic exploits went viral. The two ended up on the Ellen DeGeneres show where Bailey talked about "doing the right thing," and LeNoue mentioned, with disbelief, the number of runners who passed by without helping. Ellen talked about Bailey's inspiring display of sportsmanship, and was shocked that no one else stopped to help. It's entirely possible Ellen has never been to a cross country meet and is unfamiliar with the rules. Then Ellen did the right talk-show-host thing with a mammoth trophy for 178th place for Bailey, and a one-week, fully-paid vacation to the Bahamas for both girls.
A couple of weeks later at the Minnesota state high school cross country meet, two girls, perhaps remembering the highly publicized piggyback incident, helped a fallen competitor across the line. All three girls were disqualified. Though this adheres to the rules of the sport, there was considerable public outrage over its administration.
Then, at the NCAA meet at the end of November, Flotrack captured this "incredible sportsmanship," in which a wobbly runner from Baylor, maybe 25 meters from the finish, is assisted by her teammate, and for the last six steps which the two could definitely have accomplished without help, by a rival from the University of Minnesota. The Baylor runner who was helped was disqualified; the two good samaritans were not DQ'd and finished in 239th and 240th place out of 253. University of Minnesota coach Sarah Hopkins gave her runner a Twitter shout for her sportsmanship.
All of these incidents involved women. None of the runners were in contention for a podium spot, and may not have been in their team's top seven, which meant they weren't a factor in team scoring. Is this expression of sportsmanship particular to women? Was it encouraged by social media attention? Is it poor sportsmanship not to stop and help a fallen runner? Would frontrunners stop and help someone?
I asked several competitive runners, some who now coach. It was too delicate a topic for some, but I received thoughtful email responses from Emily Brown, a four-time All American runner at the University of Minnesota with a successful pro career, and Katie McGregor, nine-time All American at University of Michigan, 2005 10,000-meter national champ and 2:31 marathoner.
If this scenario was a race for team points, All-American, any kind of important placing, I can say that I wouldn't have stopped to help. It [the NCAA incident] wasn't a tragic event; it was a pretty normal occurrence in the sport. Even if it was a more severe injury, that's what the medical staff are at sporting events for. We see it a lot, runners DNF all the time.
It would be a different story if this happened out in the middle of nowhere and help wasn't close by. I will say, it is still a pretty cool example of humanity and sportsmanship, but I don't think it should be used to judge the runners that didn't stop to help. Every athlete in that race faced the same circumstances and it shouldn't be frowned upon that they surpassed another runner who was unable to finish the same race.
I remember a couple of races when my breathing suffered so badly I was forced to stop, head down, hands on my knees. My competitors didn't give a second thought to passing me. Some gave me words of encouragement as they passed by, and that is more than I would have even expected in terms of sportsmanship. If anyone would have stopped to help, I would have yelled at them and asked what the hell they were doing!
So bottom line: I don't see anything wrong with what happened in this particular scenario. It is nice for others to see that some athletes are really great human beings as well. But, these displays of kindness should not make it the norm in the sport, where we would expect athletes to stop competing if a competitor stumbles. This is a tough sport and if you want to be competitive, you have to be tough when you're out on the course.
If I'm racing for the win or a place, I would not stop. There are a lot of people at a cross-country meet, so I would hope that a coach, trainer or spectator would see them and help them. I would finish the race and then tell someone right away to make sure the athlete was okay. If I ran by someone who was bleeding profusely or if I thought their life was at risk or in danger, I would probably stop and yell for someone to help.
If I was out for a run or running a race for fun and came across someone who fell, I would help them, but not when competing, except as above.
I have run by people who fell right in front of me during a competition. There were a lot of people around to help. I actually ran right by a good friend who tripped in front of me. I felt bad for her, but it was a competition. She would have done the same.
I am aware of the DQ rule [for being helped across the finish line]. I don't know the specifics of it, but I am fine with it. From what I know of the situation [NCAA meet], they did not disqualify the girls [who helped].
No, I don't think it's unsportmans-like if someone falls and no one helps her.
"Do you think the fact that that first incident [Bailey and LeNoue] went viral and got tons of press has encouraged other similar displays of sportsmanship?" I asked.
"Yes," McGregor said.
"Why do you think this sort of helpfulness, at the expense of competition, is happening now?"
"Because of the attention it's getting. I'm sure it was happening before, but it just wasn't on video," she said. "Not new, just more publicized lately."
"As a coach, how would you react if one of your athletes either was helped or helped someone else?"
"I would want them to keep running if they were competing and make sure they found help after they finished," McGregor said. "Yell to others to help. (Unless the person's life was in danger.) But, I would never fault someone for helping another human being, or punish them for doing so. If they got disqualified, so be it."
It seems the level of competition, and what's at stake, determines how far runners are willing to stretch the idea of sportsmanship. The competitive athlete's definition of sportsmanship was born out recently at the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 5K, which had a prize purse of more than $12,000. Young phenom Alexa Efraimson collapsed within sight of the finish line, and watched helplessly as she slipped to 12th place.
Photo credits: Getty Images, thespreadit.com