If you’re a sports fan, and even if you’re not, chances are you know the words made famous by NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi:
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
But Lombardi didn’t mean it the way it could come to be distorted: to basically justify any and all behavior in the pursuit of victory — in sports and otherwise.
The words are a convenient mantra for an increasing crudeness in all sorts of competitions.
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They are a crutch to suggest that winning by any means necessary is inherently admirable … even if it means cheating or trash-talking or demonizing an adversary or seeking to humiliate instead of just win.
So much so that Lombardi came to regret how his words became interpreted.
“I wished I’d never said the thing,” he said per James Michener’s 1976 book, “Sports In America.” “I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”
Not that there’s not a fine time and place for some theatrics, or that we in the media don’t welcome some pizzazz for our readership and clicks and ratings.
But sometimes amid the drug cheats and chest-thumping and name-calling, it’s nice to find a refuge where sportsmanship rules over gamesmanship and where it’s about honoring the competition instead of indulging the noise.
The Russian doping scandal notwithstanding, there is a lot of that to be found at the Rio Olympics.
And there was a touching display of it Friday at the Sambodromo, the archery venue where the Olympic aspirations of close friends and teammates Brady Ellison and Zach Garrett (Wellington, Mo.) converged in the third round of the bracket.
Narrowly averting an arrow-by-arrow shoot-off, Ellison prevailed 6-4 after a shot initially ruled too close to call was determined by millimeters to be worth the maximum 10 points.
He pumped his arm fiercely but close to his body and briefly in celebration, mindful of the anguished friend he would hug tight a few seconds later.
An hour later, Ellison was no less conscious of Garrett and teammate Jake Kaminski, who he’d also beaten along the way just days after they’d combined to win silver in the team event.
This was a long-awaited moment of glory for three-time Olympian Ellison, 27, who earned bronze for the first U.S. men’s individual Olympic archery medal since the 2000 Sydney Games.
But as he spoke when he came off the course, it was important to Ellison to fend off logistics personnel trying to move him on to his next appointment to say one last thing.
“This medal’s not just mine: It’s for everyone,” he said. “They helped me get here, they’re yelling (for) me in the stands. It’s theirs, too.”
This is about friendship but also about the dignity and culture of the sport.
You would have witnessed it in another way last Saturday after Team USA lost to the Republic of Korea in the gold-medal match and the three Americans clapped for, bowed to and hugged their opponents.
And you could see it in another form in the stands on Friday, where the families of the competitors sat one row in front of another and actually cheered on each other’s children.
As it began, Garrett’s mother, Robin, turned to Ellison’s mother, Linda.
“OK, Mama, good luck,” she said.
As the competition proceeded, her spirit remained the same.
This was about wanting to see each perform at their best.
If her son was going to win, it should be by bringing out the best in his competition and vice versa.
When it was tied 1-1 after the first end, she smiled and said, “Kind of the match I was hoping for” and yelled “come on, boys,” as the next began.
“Arrow for arrow, just the way it’s supposed to be,” she said when it was tied 3-3.
She hurt for her boy, of course, when he struggled in the third end to fall behind 5-3 in the format in which first one to 6 wins.
But there was disappointment, not heartbreak, after the ruling that ended the match and eliminated her son.
Then they went to lunch with the rest of the USA Archery entourage, including the Ellison family, and came back to root for the guy who’d just eliminated her son.
You could learn a lot from the perspective of Robin Garrett, a teacher in the Fort Osage School District who couldn’t understand why anyone would respond differently.
This wasn’t life and death, after all, something she made clear long ago when she pulled her son from a competition in Columbia and took him home because of the way he was punishing himself for being off-target.
No, this was an incredible week in the life for all of them — including husband Andy, daughter Audrey and Zach’s girlfriend, Mel Devencenzi.
Albeit after an initial flight cancellation that left them fretting over getting here in time for the team match last Saturday, they’d traveled more than 5,000 miles from their small town of 800 about 45 minutes from Kansas City into a land of mystery and wrung everything they could out of it.
They reveled in the breathtaking views by the Christ The Redeemer statue. They relished the hospitality for Olympic families to be found at such places as USA House.
They just had to touch famous Ipanema Beach, and then there was the unforgettable spectacle of going to see the U.S. women’s gymnastics team win the gold medal.
Naturally, this would all be harder to reconcile for her perfectionist, pensive son.
In the immediate aftermath of his elimination by Ellison, Garrett, 21, retreated to the practice area to shoot a few arrows and gather himself.
He wanted to win, after all. Badly.
And it’s a fundamental fact of the sport that you have to face friends sometimes, including ones he had to beat to make the Olympic team and Ellison many more times to come.
“It doesn’t have to be cutthroat, but everybody understands the way it is,” he said. “At some point, you have to look out for yourself a little bit.”
So for some time to come he’ll be working to rectify whatever went awry in the third end, when he shot a 7 he couldn’t immediately explain.
That perhaps in turn led to a 4 on his next arrow since maybe it got him “thinking too much in the future.”
That was a rare but not unprecedented mental lapse, he said, so now he figures that will be his focus for the next four years.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the moment for Ellison after a match that needed no nonsense to furnish all the sporting drama anyone could want.
If you’ve ever competed with a friend for something that matters, you know there are a few different ways that can go.
One might pout if it doesn’t go their way. Another might resent it. Relationships can be frayed or fractured.
The bigger people, though, see a bigger picture.
Sure, “it’s a bit of a complex relationship” to compete with such a friend and even a mentor, Garrett said.
But he smiled and added, “But our friendship is pretty important.”
And winning really isn’t everything.
It is about how you play the game — and the striving to be the best.
Take it, even, from Vince Lombardi.