Whether you’re a soldier or a civilian, you can’t help but applaud Rebekah Keat’s magnanimous ­gesture in tossing Chrissie Wellington a CO2 cartridge on the bike course of the 2008 Ironman World Championship. That decision saved Wellington’s race, her title defense, and the women’s course record. It also wound up bumping Keat back one place in the final standings.

We hail that moment as one of the finest in Ironman history—a shining example of the honorable selflessness and camaraderie between brother and sister competitors. Keat would certainly be offered a seat at Arthur’s roundtable, but probably not at the Pentagon.

Is the distinction between following the golden rule and going for the gold made by whether we’re “in the hunt?”

There’s another way of looking at Keat’s moment of choice. You don’t compete for the Kona crown on a shoestring budget. Like several modern military forces, pro athletes go for the most cutting-edge equipment available (“speed weaponry” comes to mind). The aerodynamic research going into bike equipment these days may be the closest thing the sporting world has to an arms race. Indeed, the sporting goods and aircraft industries are major rivals in carbon fiber consumption. As the obsession with the best and fastest equipment gets down to the rolling resistance of different tire brands, it begs the question—wasn’t Wellington’s flat exactly the sort of critical vulnerability competitors seek to exploit? There are rules against pacers and receiving aid along the course.  And, had the other competitors filed a protest, Wellington would have been issued a time penalty. While that wouldn’t have robbed her of first place, it’s significant that Keat’s valiance was technically illegal.     

It’s an uncomfortable thought. Yet no one blames the military for not giving terrorists a couple of unmanned drones or a nuclear powered carrier to even the odds. Nor do we hold Yvonne Van Vlerken or Sandra Wallenhorst in contempt for withholding any spare cartridges they might have had as they sped past Wellington. 

But Keat wound up finishing 18th that day, whereas Van Vlerken took the lead upon Wellington’s misfortune, and would have finished that way had the tire gone unrepaired. Is the distinction between following the golden rule and going for the gold made by whether we’re “in the hunt?” The language of integrity spoken by both athletes and warriors says no. Still, the unspoken rules of honor among competitors in the Tour de France have become the subject of debate in recent years. “Gentlemanly conduct” demands that the peloton slows down and waits for the yellow jersey, should he fall.  However the rule’s unwritten nature leaves it open to interpretation and controversy. Perhaps professional cycling, with all its doping suspicions and scandals, isn’t the best place to look for honor. Triathlon, especially Ironman, remains comparatively clean, both ethically and chemically. 

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Yvonne VanVlerken competes in the 2008 Hawaii Ironman

But a clear conscience (and two bucks) will only get you a cheap cup of coffee. Winning puts your face on the Wheaties box or your name on a lucrative endorsement contract. That invokes another principle warriors and athletes know well—playing for keeps. Faris Al-Sultan didn’t have any problems leaving Normann Stadler behind in 2007 when the defending champ picked up two flat tires. Solidarity only seems to come into play when a common enemy emerges

Aristotle and Kant thought a lot about the relative worth of intrinsic and material values. For every ancient philosopher, there’s a modern hedge fund tycoon with a good counter argument and a trooper in a foxhole who’ll tell you bullets don’t discriminate between rule-keepers and breakers. We don’t exactly watch movies like Wall Street or Platoon for their “feel good” value, while time and again we make the pilgrimage to Kona to refresh our inspiration and faith in the human spirit. But there’s no trophy for the nice guy who finishes last, and in Mongolia there’s a 130-foot tall silver statue of Genghis Khan. Napoleon’s tomb required 20 years to fashion, and contains six separate coffins, but there’s no such monument for humanitarian Clara Barton

From Marcus Aurelius and Macca to both Wellingtons (the Duke and Chrissie), history shows that we have no problem remembering the conquerors and champions. That leaves us with the Salvatore Giuntas and Rebekah Keats of the world, whose heroism is punctuated by the fact that they didn’t necessarily carry the day. We exalt their actions, yet stop short of giving them a real dollar value. Perhaps heroism should remain priceless, but that might be a contrived excuse to avoid paying an extra five bucks in race fees or taxes to fund a bonus for a pro Ironman or Staff Sergeant (on average they make roughly the same salary). It’s a difficult proposition, but not so difficult as the one they face in the critical moment of choice. If we can’t define a physical reward for our present-day heroes, then we ought still to honor them with our daily actions.

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Jim Gourley graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in Astronautical Engineering. He served seven years in the Army as an infantry and intelligence officer in the 101st Airborne Division. An Iron-distance triathlete, he writes on technological developments and military athletes in triathlon for LAVA.