A brief history of fair play at the Olympics 

Picture by 2016 Getty Images

In the current difficult times, solidarity has become an essential part of the global fight against COVID-19, with athletes across the world united in their response to the crisis.

In reality, such solidarity fits perfectly with the Olympic spirit, as defined by Pierre de Coubertin more than a century ago. The Baron himself once said: “For each individual, sport is a possible source for inner improvement.”

This non-exhaustive list of amazing moments of solidarity from different Olympic Games shows just how accurate the father of Modern Olympic Games was.

Be fair

At Los Angeles 1932, Judy Guinness was aiming for the gold medal in fencing. Leading in the final against Austria’s Ellen Preis, she made a remarkable gesture of fair play. Guinness indicated to the judges that they had forgotten to award Preis two points for successful touches. By doing so, she lost the final,with Preis going on to win the gold medal.

A similar, but far more symbolic, gesture of fair play could be seen four years later at the Berlin Olympics. In the long jump final, legendary American athlete Jesse Owens had fouled his first two attempts. The German Luz Long, who was fighting for gold, advised Owens to re-mark his run-up to have more margin for error. The adjustment enabled Owens to qualify and eventually win the gold medal. In a story that defied the politics of the time, the two men remained friends until Long died during World War II.

Jesse Owens at long jump, Berlin 1936

At Los Angeles 1984 Japan’s Yasuhiro Yamashita was favourite to win +95 kg judo gold. However, in only his second match, the athlete tore a muscle in his right calf. Despite the pain, the Japanese athlete managed to reach the final where he faced Egyptian Mohamed Ali Rashwan. Incredibly, the Japanese champion won the final, but it was only later that the full story of the final bout was revealed. Rashwan explained that he had deliberately not attacked his opponent’s injured leg because doing so would have been against his principles. Chapeau!

Share the glory

At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, an unusual situation occurred in the pole vault event. Japanese athletes Sueo Oe and Shuhei Nishida both jumped the exact same height of 4.25m to finish joint second behind Earle Meadows. Eventually, Nishida was given the silver medal for having completed more attempts than Oe, who ended up winning bronze. But the story didn’t end there. The two athletes, who were great friends, had the medals cut in half to create a pair of unique mixed medals, later known as the ‘Medals of Eternal Friendship’.

In a different way, Shawn Crawford also shared his silver medal at Beijing 2008. The American sprinter finished fourth in the 200m final but Churandy Martina (who had finished second) was disqualified for having stepped outside of his lane. As a consequence, and due to the fact the third-placed athlete had also been disqualified, Crawford was awarded the silver medal. But, in a pure demonstration of fair play, the American mailed the medal to Martina a few weeks later, with a note saying: "I know this won't replace the moment, but I want you to have this, because I believe it's rightfully yours!"

Never give up

Next up is one of the iconic moments of the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. In the 400m final, Derek Redmond suffered a hamstring injury halfway through the race, forcing him to stop on the track in floods of tears. Seeing his son in distress, Redmond’s father (who had been sitting in the stands) came to his son’s rescue, walking him to the finish line and creating a moment of tenderness that has become one of the most enduring images from any Olympics.

Tanzanian John Stephen Akhwari had a similar story when he ran the 1968 Olympic marathon. He fell down during the race and badly hurt his knee. Refusing to abandon his goal, he eventually completed the race around 20 minutes after any of the other runners, while obviously still in great pain. When reporters asked him why he had not simply given up, his answer was one of the most inspiring in Olympic history: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race, they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Help each other

Sometimes small details can ruin the Olympic experience of an athlete. That was the case for the Swedish swimmer Therese Alshammar who was preparing to compete in the 50m freestyle event at Beijing 2008. In a stroke of bad luck, her suit was ripped before the race began and despite the help of Dara Torres (who was a favourite for gold) she could not fix it. But Torres didn’t give up. She pleaded with the officials to postpone the start of the race to give a chance to Alshammar to get changed. The officials duly accepted the request and the Swede was able to swim her semi-final.

In the Rio 2016 5,000m race, an unfortunate but relatively common event occurred: New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin collided with American Abbey D'Agostino, sending the latter tumbling to the ground. What’s less common is what happened next. Hamblin stopped and helped D'Agostino to her feet, before proceeding to run alongside her to the finish line, with D’Agostino managing to complete the race despite suffering a torn ACL and meniscus.

At Beijing 2008, in the sailing 49er class, the Danish team (Jonas Warrer and Martin Kirketerp) definitely owe their gold medal to the actions of the Croatian team, Pavle Kostov and Petar Cupac. Right before the final race, the mast of the Danish boat broke. The Croatians, who were already out of the competition, quickly prepared their boat to lend it to the Danes, who started the race four minutes after every other team. The Danish team eventually finished seventh, which was enough to secure a gold medal overall.

Even more dramatic is the story of Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux back at Seoul 1988. In the fifth of his seven races in the Finn class, he was in second place. But seeing that Singaporean sailors Joseph Chan and Shaw Her Siew had fallen into the water and were in real danger, he changed direction, pulling Chan onto his boat before rescuing Siew. Lemieux finished the race well behind all of the leaders, eventually ending the competition in 11th place overall.


Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.