Edward Keenan: It’s not bad sportsmanship for Canada’s Jocelyne Larocque to feel her disappointment

There’s no excuse for acting out violently or in rage or disrespect when things don’t go as you’d hoped, writes Edward Keenan, but that’s not what the 29-year-old did.

Ceremonial policy dictated that Jocelyne Larocque wear a silver medal around her neck, commemorating that loss, but she took it off and held it in her hand instead. Across the country, much scolding ensued.

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Ceremonial policy dictated that Jocelyne Larocque wear a silver medal around her neck, commemorating that loss, but she took it off and held it in her hand instead. Across the country, much scolding ensued.

Mere minutes after losing in one of the two biggest games of her life — the game she and her teammates spent all year training for, the one they spent four years waiting for, one of those ones she and a million other girls spent a lifetime dreaming about — the cruelties of ceremonial policy dictated someone should hang a medal around her neck commemorating that loss, right there, right then. The result was still new, the shock of disappointment still settling in.

This wasn’t the medal she’d hoped for, dreamed of, came for. Still, she bowed her head to allow it to be placed around her neck. Then, a few moments later, she took it off and held it in her hand.

Across the country, a million scolding, sanctimonious lectures on sportsmanship were launched.

It’s interesting that these Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have been Canada’s most successful medal haul ever, but have afforded us so many big opportunities to reflect on big losses. Men’s and women’s curling, out of the medals. Men’s hockey, destined for the bronze medal game. Women’s hockey, after a record-setting 24 consecutive Olympic game victories, including four straight gold medals along the way, experiencing a loss in the biggest game of all.

I admit to being a bit tickled watching some of the freestyle ski and snowboarding events, where many of the favourites go for a big trick and wipe out spectacularly, leaving them out of medal contention — and immediately they smile and shrug to the cameras as if to say, “Oh well, I went for it. How cool would that have been if I’d landed it?” It’s a different sport, a different culture, with different expectations and measures of success outside the Olympics.

In other sports, where near misses and shoulda-beens do seem to wound and haunt the competitors, there’s still often the small mercy of having the medal presentations staged later, well after the contest itself. After things have sunk in. After a little perspective is established. After people have a chance to compose themselves.

Not so in hockey, where medals are presented right there on the ice where the game has been won and lost minutes before. For the winners of the gold, it is ecstasy. For the “winners” of silver, it is ceremonializing the biggest loss of their lives.

Jocelyne Larocque, who didn’t feel comfortable in that moment keeping that silver around her neck, apologized. I agree with Star columnist Bruce Arthur that it’s not clear to me she had anything much to apologize for. To the point Arthur made in his column on this: she didn’t fling the medal into the crowd, or trash a dressing room, or blow her nose on anyone’s flag. She didn’t refuse to shake hands, or yell at her teammates, or anything like that at all. She just stood there and quietly removed a medal from around her own neck. That’s all.

I have played a lot of lower-stakes sports in my life, watched a lot of higher-stakes sports, and I coach children’s hockey and baseball now. I have learned and taught some lessons about sportsmanship. I think showing respect to your teammates and opponents is important, as is recognizing that what you have control over is your own effort and attitude, which sometimes won’t be reflected on the scoreboard. The games are still worth playing, no matter what the result turns out to be. There’s no excuse for acting out violently or in rage or disrespect when things don’t go as you’d hoped.

In sports as in all of life, to paraphrase Grantland Rice, the One Great Scorer is ultimately more concerned with how the games were played than with who got the W. But at the same time, playing those games well, almost by definition, means playing them in pursuit of that W.

It’s entirely natural that when you lose an important game — the important game — you’ll be disappointed. It’s not bad sportsmanship to feel that disappointment, nor to acknowledge it.

Good sportsmanship involves playing as well as you can, focusing with your teammates on a common goal. When you fail to achieve that goal, it doesn’t feel good. Being a good sport isn’t about slapping a fake smile on your face and performing some unfelt celebration of your ultimate lack of success.

You congratulate your opponent, absolutely, because they deserve it. You try to be graceful, and not let your own disappointment steal the moment from those who have earned success. You reflect — then or later — about the things you did well, the experiences you had, the things you and your teammates did together and achieved together.

But you didn’t achieve your goal, and that hurts, especially in the moment. Letting the hurt show is just fine.

When Larocque comes to reflect on those bigger picture things, I don’t expect the result will sting any less. But maybe those other things will still feel good. Especially since she and her team — and those they inherited the team from — had a hell of a run. An unprecedented run. I suspect it will be a long time before anyone else matches that achievement.

Right to the end. It was a hell of a game, as so many of the Canada vs. U.S. games have been. We saw an overtime finish in 2014 in Sochi after an improbable last-minute Canada comeback. A one-goal Canada victory in a 2018 preliminary game where the U.S. seemed to play well enough to win. And an extra-rounds shootout victory for the U.S. in this gold-medal game after they staged a third-period comeback of their own.

These were great games. Close games. Hard-fought games. The kind of games where a single bounce can change everything. The U.S. hit the post on an empty net in the last minute of 2014. Both teams hit the post in overtime in 2018. That’s how close these games were.

And because these otherwise peerless teams have been so good, and so close, and have played each other so well, that’s the difference between ecstasy and agony.

That’s part of why it feels so good when they win. And feels so very bad when they lose. It hurts, even if there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to apologize for. Not in how they played, and not in how they reacted after the game.

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