A not-so-graceful departure

I haven’t watched the Olympics much this year, and among the events I didn’t watch was the USA-Sweden soccer match. Add to that the fact that I know less about soccer than the average Ghanaian knows about figure skating, and you might want to discount anything I say from here on in.

But even in my ignorance I know enough about sportsmanship to be embarrassed by Hope Solo, the American goalkeeper who said afterwards that the Swedes were cowards for playing primarily a defensive game. Her tweet in full: “we lost to a bunch of cowards. The better team did not win.”

Though it’s true I know little about the sport, I do know that when the ball goes left to right, one team is playing defense, and when the ball goes right to left, the roles reverse. (If you’re watching from behind the goal, I can’t help you.) Defense, then, is not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing. And for a goalkeeper—whose main function is defense—a complaint like that sounds incredibly silly—like a poor shortstop in baseball blaming the cowardly opponents because “they kept hitting the ball to me.”

I’ll grant this much: playing against a purely defensive team can be frustrating. Tennis players I’ve coached have encountered defensive players who do nothing but return the ball. “It’s like playing a backboard,” they say, but there are ways to beat players like that. You need patience, of course, and discipline, but mostly you need better shots than they have. What they use against you isn’t cowardice; it’s called strategy.

Hope Solo has been a lightning rod throughout her career: this little outburst was preceded by several questionable insults about the host country. Although Solo’s legacy as an athlete is pretty well established, there’s a widely circulated belief that the team would like nothing better than to sever relations with her; unfortunately, there’s nobody better at her position. We see that in professional sports all the time—some boorish player alienates his teammates and embarrasses his sport, but continues on because it means winning. It would be nice if the Olympic games could return to its amateurism and eliminate participants like Solo, but that genie escaped long ago.

Now thirty-eight years old, Solo is nowhere near the oldest Olympian this year: Great Britain’s Jo Pavey, a track and field athlete, is 42; and Mary Hanna, an equestrian from Australia, is 61. And though Michael Phelps is portrayed as an “old,” 31, countryman Meb Keflezighi is ten years his senior. It isn’t being older and jaded that makes athletes bad sports—it’s simply the inability to compete for the sake of challenging oneself—the tendency to see the opponent as the enemy. Solo may have played her last Olympic game, and if so, it’s too bad she couldn’t have left the stage a little more gracefully…though that would apparently have been out of character.

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