Truly Fair Competition: A Lesson from Beach Volleyball

Truly Fair Competition: A Lesson from Beach Volleyball

I don’t watch a lot of television, certainly nothing like the 44 hours a week of conventional TV the typical 56-to-65 year-old American watches (Where do they find the time?).

The last few days, however, I’ve come much closer to the national average. And I’ve watched things I’ve never, or very rarely, watched before:

  • Rappers doing their thing.
  • A super-model walking a runway.
  • A lot of dancing, including something called Hippy Hoppy.
  • Women on the beach.

Must be the Summer Olympics in Brazil.

The first three were from the wonderful opening ceremonies, so much more “real” and infectious than a number of other opening ceremonies in my memory.

The fourth wasn’t a filler shot of beach life. It was women’s beach volleyball.

I’m a volleyball fan. I’ll happily play a pick-up game if the opportunity presents itself. I’ve cheered on one daughter who took up the sport and countless of my students who were on the University of Tampa’s awesome women’s teams.

Women’s beach volleyball however, is a bit uncomfortable for me to watch. The attire prompts family jokes about the great fabric shortage of ’16. There are things that just aren’t meant for my eyes . . . at least in my opinion.

But as soon as the first couple of serves, digs and kills are played out, my discomfort vanishes. Because I’m watching athletes play an intense game with determination, strength and finesse. The things that make sports great are all captured in that tiny bit of sand. The rules are simple, the competition intense. Nothing else really matters, once the game begins.

And it’s the Olympics, where mutual respect and shared competitive spirit often triumph over everything else.

Which is what I saw when China and Switzerland played.

The match was close, with each team winning one set. China got the edge in the third and final set; Switzerland faced three or four match points.

Then, Switzerland scored a point, and the Chinese team challenged the call, saying one of the Swiss players had fouled by touching the net. (Challenging and reviewing the video is new at this year’s Olympics.)

What the video clearly showed was the Swiss player stumbling into the lower net . . . after the Chinese player, up high for a block, had touched the top of the net.

It is the first net foul that matters. Which meant that China, not Switzerland, should forfeit the point.

Yet the review judge granted China the point on the challenge, not Switzerland.

Game over.

Which is when things got interesting.

The Swiss players began talking to the court judges, arguing that the Chinese player had touched the net first.  Their criticism appeared to be insistent but respectful. Soon, they had all of the judges’ attention.

The problem was, nothing in the Olympic rules provided a remedy for this situation.  Nothing in the rules said that a successful challenge could be overturned. There wasn’t a path of re-review, nor an “appellate court” to which they could appeal.

After a bit of conversation, both teams resumed their positions on the court. Play recommenced . . . with a do-over of the point.

A do-over?

Can you imagine the Yankees and the Red Soxes, after a disputed called third strike, agreeing to a do-over of the 3-2 pitch?

Or the Patriots and the Colts agreeing to a do-over on a contested Brady touchdown pass?

It was an elegant solution. Both teams seemed to embrace it. It honored the rule (the Chinese had won the challenge, so the point couldn’t now be awarded to the Swiss) and good sportswomanship (the Swiss shouldn’t be penalized for what was a judge’s error).

The Swiss won the replayed point. The Chinese, ultimately, prevailed in the match.

Both sides earned the outcome. The judges didn’t settle it; the players did.

Which is the way sports . . . and other things . . . ought to work.

True competition is about honoring clear and reasonable rules, pushing oneself to one’s best, and respecting the opponent. It’s about competing more than just winning, and certainly about meriting victory more than stealing it by any means available.

Too much Olympic coverage, and too much political talk, places primary emphasis on “victories” and on beating down our rivals. But the Olympics themselves . . . they’re actually about something much greater that still shines through.

Putting our best out on the court, to challenge the best that others bring. Appreciating the dedication it takes simply to get there, and the effort each athlete makes, pitting herself or himself against the competition, but mostly against themselves.

Striving to be something more . . . whatever the medal or lack of medal earned.

It’s why I watch the Olympics. And it’s what I hope to see in other competitions, including the ones that will dominate the airwaves this fall.


2 Responses to Truly Fair Competition: A Lesson from Beach Volleyball

  • kk ll

    Don’t be so naive, ok? The game behind become so bare in this cas, it’s totally unfair for the chinese girls.