Real Sport Has Heart

A new level of sportsmanship leaped onto a highly competitive platform last week. Actually, it wasn’t a platform, it was a snowy trail. And it wasn’t some abstract idea that emerged, it was Canadian cross-country racing coach, Justin Wadsworth.


For nearly two decades, I’ve been touting the importance of winning with humility and losing with grace. I’ve written articles on competition, conducted staff training workshops at camps on three continents and even lectured my own children on the topic. (What’s parenthood without the occasional sermon?) After all that, the cross-country semi-finals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi put an even finer point on the concept of sportsmanship than I’ve ever been able to do.


Is that possible? After articles, workshops and lectures, do camp professionals really have any more to learn about sportsmanship? Don’t competitions at all camps end with the winning and losing teams doing a cheer for one another? What’s left? Um … have you ever seen an opposing team’s coach replace an opposing player’s broken equipment?


We all know that when a player is injured, standard practice is to call a time-out. Most of the players stand around idly, waiting for play to resume. Perhaps one of the injured player’s teammates provides comfort while the coaches or trainers assess the injury. Even opposing coaches get involved with the injury is significant or one of their players was the proximal cause. That’s about it. Well, that was about it, until last week.


On Tuesday, February 11 th , Russian cross-country skier Anton Gafarov wiped out and damaged his left ski. After lying in the snow (feeling defeated, I’m guessing), Gafarov picked himself up. In a tremendous display of tenacity, he tried to finish the race, broken ski and all. He was two minutes behind most skiers in a race that typically lasts only about six minutes. He knew he was going to lose by—quite literally—a mile, but he tried to keep going. That’s good sportsmanship.


After a short while, Gafarov’s ski actually broke apart, making it un-skiable. Tenacity, shmenacity. It was time to walk off the course. Seeing that situation, Wadsworth, who had brought a back-up ski for his own racers, jogged out onto the trail, unclipped Gafarov’s binding and attached the new ski. That’s great sportsmanship.


I suppose it’s worth noting that no medal was at stake. After he wiped out, Gafarov did not even have a chance to qualify. And without a crystal ball, no one will ever know whether Wadsworth would have behaved the same way had the Russian skier been neck-and-neck with one of the Canadian skiers or in contention for a spot in the final race. But let’s focus on what actually happened, not what might have been different.


Wadsworth’s actions were a wonderful example of fairness and compassion. Competition isn’t worth it when the proverbial playing field isn’t level. And looking on while a player suffers is just plain cruel. The crowd at the finish line clearly recognized both Wadsworth’s humanity and Gafarov’s resolve. They cheered so loudly, it was as if the Russian had won not just the qualifying race but the gold medal. The celebration that day was about kindness and about overcoming adversity, not about record-breaking times or national pride. It was amazing to see.


We love sport because it’s entertaining. It also has the capacity to hold a mirror up to our nature. On that Tuesday, the reflection was stunning. What will the behavior of your campers and staff reveal this summer?


Dr. Christopher Thurber enjoys learning from his own two children and from the students at PhillipsExeterAcademy, where he serves as the psychologist. He is the co-founder of, a web-based training platform for youth-development professionals. Visit his website at