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When Sportsmanship Became More Important Than Winning

Ivan Fernandez
Runner Ivan Fernandez extending help to his competitor Abel Mutai. Credit: Ivan Fernandez/ Instagram

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics progress and many athletes experience the emotional triumphs of career defining wins, other athletes, like US gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, have had their mental health suffer due to the high stress environment created by the cut throat competitiveness of world class sport. One story we might want to touch on in times such as these is that of Ivan Fernandez, a Spanish long distance runner who had the golden opportunity to exploit his competitor’s confusion to get the upper hand in a race, but instead, did the last thing you would expect.

He helped his competitor see his mistake and run the rest of the race to the finish line. Here’s exactly what happened.

How a Ivan Fernandez showed us the meaning of sportsmanship

Kenyan runner Abel Mutai was only a few meters from the finish line, but got confused with the signs and stopped, thinking he had finished the race. Fernandez was right behind him and, realizing what was going on, started shouting to the Kenyan to keep running. Mutai did not know Spanish and did not understand.

Realizing what was going on, Fernandez pushed Mutai to victory.

A reporter asked Ivan, “Why did you do this?” Ivan replied, “My dream is that one day we can have some sort of community life where we push ourselves and also others to win.”

“I didn’t deserve to win it,” said Fernandez. “I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed if he hadn’t made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn’t going to pass him.”

The reporter insisted “But why did you let the Kenyan win?” Fernandez replied, “I didn’t let him win, he was going to win. The race was his.”

The reporter insisted and asked again, “But you could have won!” Ivan looked at him and replied: “But what would be the merit of my victory? What would be the honor of this medal? What would my Mother think of it?” The values are transmitted from generation to generation. What values do we teach our children and how much do you inspire others to earn? Most of us take advantage of people’s weaknesses instead of helping to strengthen them.

Many would find that display of character unthinkable in the heat of the moment. Sometimes witnessing such a great act of sportsmanship and selflessness is more thrilling than feats of athleticism. At a time where professional athletes are speaking more openly and honestly about the negative effects competition can have on their mental health and well being, athletes who want to support their fellow athletes can take something away from the strong message Fernandez sent at the race that day.

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