Why gentlemanly conduct is alive and well

Paolo Di Canio sportingly spurned a goal-scoring opportunity to help a fellow professional // Bradley Wiggins slowed his pace to allow his rival to catch up(Image © Laurent Rebours - AP)
Paolo Di Canio sportingly spurned a goal-scoring opportunity to help a fellow professional
The sportsmanship displayed this weekend by cyclists on the Tour de France begs the question: does sport bring out the best in some men?
You have to look quite hard, but in among the court cases, violence, multimillion pound contracts and on-field hissy fits, professional sport can still throw up the occasional example of pure sportsmanship.
That was certainly the case at the weekend, when an apparent attempt at sabotage - carpet tacks were thrown onto the road - left several Tour de France cyclists with punctures and one or two stranded waiting for new bikes. One of those was defending champion Cadel Evans.
Instead of taking advantage of a rival's ill luck, race leader Bradley Wiggins called for the peloton to slow down so that Evans could catch up. The two men then crossed the finish line side by side.
"Hats off to Sky and Wiggins," Evans' teammate George Hincapie said on NBC Sports after the race. "They weren't aggressive at all. They knew we were having difficulties and they didn't take advantage of the situation. It's good to know there's still some kind of sportsmanship out there."
So why didn't Wiggins use the incident to all but eliminate Evans as a challenger for this year's Tour? When the going gets tough, why does competitive sport bring out the best in some men?
It's not just cycling
One factor that helps explain the weekend's events is camaraderie. Cycling is one of the most physically demanding sports of all. The threat of serious injury is ever present. Cyclists tend to share a mutual respect and admiration that encourages sportsmanship.
But every sport has its gentlemen. Some argue that Andy Murray's speech after losing the Wimbledon final this year was a classic example of taking defeat gracefully.
Even in the sometimes morally dubious world of Premiers League football, sportsmanship sometimes wins out, and spectacularly so. In 1997, Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler raced into the box and tumbled over the outstretched hands of Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman.
Instead of getting up and punching the air in celebration at the subsequent penalty award, Fowler protested to the referee. He wanted the penalty decision withdrawn. There had been no contact, said Fowler. The penalty should not have been given.
Even more unforgettable were the actions of controversial Italian Paolo Di Canio, at the time playing for West Ham. When the Everton keeper Paul Gerrard went down injured, the ball was crossed ready for Di Canio to tap into an empty net, only for the striker to catch the ball and signal that Gerrard needed attention.
All sports can boast similar examples of sportsmanship, of course. Perhaps most famously, Jesse Owens only won one of his four gold medals at the 'Nazi' Berlin Olympics of 1936 after German long jumper Lutz Long advised him to alter his run up. Owens jumped to gold and Long had to be content with silver, but the men celebrated together.
What makes a sportsman?
So why didn't Di Canio tap into an empty net and Long keep his advice to himself? What is certainly true is that these actions stand out because of their relative rarity. Most footballers would have scored the goal and worried about the goalkeeper later.
Psychologist Dr Jay Goldstein, who has published research into sportsmanship, states: "Among some selfish and self-absorbed professional athletes, gracious losers and winners are hard to find. Instead, attempts to cheat, taunting, and head-butting appear to be the norm."
It may even be true that sportsmanship is in decline, as the overarching desire to win is instilled in young athletes at an ever earlier age. One American study found that 84% of teenage soccer players would deliberately foul an opponent to stop him scoring.
So what marks out the other 16%, along with Wiggins, Fowler and Di Canio? It may simply be down to upbringing and the example set by parents. A study by Dr Goldstein found that 50% of parents got angry watching their children's football games. Some even fought with each other.
"The idea that youth sport participants should enjoy the journey, rather than being judged by the final score, seems far removed from the minds of such parents," said Dr Goldstein. And that win-at-all-costs mentality gets transferred to their children, who then keep it throughout their athletic careers.
There may be one more reason. Psychologists have identified two motivations that drive people to compete in competitive sport.
Ego-driven sportsmen play to win. They want to display their superiority and to win at all costs, and will justify fouling an opponent to stop him scoring as simply a tactic anyone could employ. Being ungentlemanly is simply a strategy for winning.
But others are driven by 'task orientation'. In a nutshell, they play sport because they want to master its skills. Their focus is more on improving their ability than winning, though winning is one obvious consequence of their journey of self-improvement. But because the focus is not solely on winning, these players are more likely to display sportsman-like traits during matches or races.
Winning the best way
So maybe Wiggins, Di Canio et al were motivated more by task orientation rather than ego, at least on these occasions.
And maybe they just wanted to win in the best way possible. Psychologically, a win is devalued if your opponent can't give his best too.
Wiggins may simply want to know that, if he still has the yellow jersey in Paris next week, he has won the world's most gruelling cycle race by being the very best road cyclist of all.
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