An Olympian Decision

The best story coming out of the Olympics did not make many headlines We have been overwhelmed by reports of national heroes who won medals as well as human stories such as U.S. star gymnast Simone Biles’ mental health issues or the Belarussian sprinter’s request for political asylum in Poland. Most prominently, nationalist competition has been highlighted in charts that show which countries won the most medals, focusing on U.S. versus China as the world’s dominant sports power. But those are not the best story.

The best story coming out of the Olympics was a decision by two athletes to share a gold medal. Mutaz-Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy both cleared 2.37 meters in the Olympic high jump. Their previous results in the competition were identical. Both then attempted to jump 2.39 meters and failed. Normally, they would have continued jumping in a tiebreaker until one was eliminated. The winner would have won the gold medal; the loser the silver.

According to the rules, however, they could have shared the gold instead of continuing jumping. A video from the competition shows an official trying to explain the rule when Barshim spontaneously asks the official. “Can we have two golds?”

Barshim quickly asked Tamberi if they could share the gold medal before the official finished explaining. No calculation of his chances of winning. No prisoner’s dilemma game theory using rational choice to analyse what was in his best interest.

And Tamberi immediately agreed. Barshim explained: “I look at him, he looks at me, and we know it. We just look at each other and we know, that is it, it is done,” Barshim told reporters after. “He is one of my best friends, not only on the track but outside the track. We work together,” he added. “This is a dream come true. It is the true spirit, the sportsman spirit, and we are here delivering this message.”

After the judge confirmed that they could share the gold medal, Tamberi embraced his fellow competitor. Not a fist pump or a short bro hug, but a true embrace.

According to CNN; “Despite the ban on spectators due to Covid restrictions, loud cheers rang out from the small crowd in the stadium as the two men ran toward their coaches and teammates. Tamberi, overcome with emotion, collapsed on the track. In the stands, both coaches broke down in tears.”

We live in a binary world: either/or, yes or no, black or white, win or lose, true or false, pass or fail, high or low, hot or cold inside or outside, city or country, hard or soft, male or female, simple or complex, love or hate, clean or dirty, good or bad, dead or alive, friend or foe, with us or against us, Republican or Democrat, bilateral or multilateral, fragmented or holistic, quantity or quality, science or humanities, static or dynamic, logical or absurd, civilized or savage, competition or cooperation.

Our computers work by 0 and 1. There are no other integers used. Aristotle referred to this either/or principle as follows: “There cannot be an intermediate between contradictions, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate.” Logicians now call this the problem of the excluded middle.

But, as the Danish mathematician Georg Cantor pointed out over one hundred years ago, there are an infinite number of infinite numbers between 0 and 1. Quite simply, Cantor showed that between 0 and 1 there is no excluded middle. And, we maintain, there are infinite possibilities between each of the either/ors mentioned above. Nevertheless, either/or remains a hegemonic paradigm.

Can that paradigm change? French President Emmanuel Macron, influenced by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is fond of the concept of “en même temps.” (at the same time). The concept posits that what is contradictory is not necessarily incompatible. Macron maintains that to be proud of France and being French is not incompatible with supporting the development of a larger European identity. One can be a devoted French patriot, according to Macron, while at the same time being in favor of deeper European integration.

Why not two gold medals in the same event? Barshim and Tamberi gave a wonderful example of true sportsmanship in what the Olympics or any sporting event should be about. “Higher, faster, stronger,” the Olympic motto, does not have to be a binary “I win, you lose.”

And the example from sports could be used in other spheres. Win-win is a fundamental principle of all successful negotiations. “en même temps” applies to real life situations such as being French and European or American and citizen of the world.  So instead of focusing on medal counts and winners and losers, we should tip our hats to Barshim and Tamberi for their truly Olympian decision.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.