Opinion: Sam Gaze and Anton Cooper's epic battle is one we should cherish

OPINION: Instead of celebrating in the spotlight after his stunning gold medal, Sam Gaze has found himself surrounded by the angry glare of the public.

That's largely his own doing, but the uproar surrounding his actions during the mountain biking has been surprising, and at times, over the top.

The pitchforks have stabbed angrily at his tyres for his outburst during the race and his comments afterwards.

Gaze was in pole-position during the event, until an unfortunate mechanical problem. As he saw Cooper fly off into the distance, he pulled the finger with his frustrations spilling onto the track.

While Gaze questioned the actions of Cooper, wondering why he'd didn't stop and wait for him, the Christchurch man was spot-on. He had every right to power up the hill.

Mountain biking is not road cycling. There's no etiquette about stopping when someone has a problem with their bike. You don't work in a team with the goal of putting one of you riders on the podium. It's every man or woman for themselves.

While there's no doubt this incident was the fuel that powered his remarkable comeback, flipping the bird and his flippant post-race remarks weren't in good taste.

His response to Newshub reporter Ollie Ritchie's question about whether Anton Cooper was a bad sport was also bizarre, and more than a little awkward.

Opinion: Sam Gaze and Anton Cooper's epic battle is one we should cherish
Photo credit: Getty Images

But let's not forget how important this race was to Gaze. This was his chance for redemption, after the disappointment of silver in Glasgow. Having his bike fall apart, and watching his rival charge off into the distance, can't have been easy.

When I spoke to him in November, he openly talked about how the second-place in Scotland still "annoyed him". He's also coming off one of the toughest years in his career, where regular migraines halted his season. Plus Cooper had beaten Gaze in the Oceania Champs, after Gaze had to stop twice to inflate his tyres.

Gaze is a determined individual. He ended up in hospital before one of the World Cup events after refusing to take no for an answer as he battled his migraines.

While pulling the finger and his disparaging comments shook the branches of the public, the real issue lies within the roots.

Much of the outrage has centred on his unsportsmanlike behaviour. How dare two New Zealand athletes not get along?

Put simply, there's no reason why Gaze and Cooper have to like each other.

Some of sports best rivalries are the most bitter. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the NBA, the Yankees and the Red Sox in the MLB, Manchester United and Liverpool in the EPL.

Surely they're allowed to smile at each other through gritted teeth, before doing everything they can to get one over the other.

While it may be hard to tell at the moment, the pair have indicated they respect each other in the past.

This is what Gaze said about Cooper in November: "Anton's a great athlete and a good person. He's very professional in the way he conducts himself and the way he trains and performs at races, so it's great to have someone like Anton who sort of guided me up through the ranks and now he's got someone I like to think who can really push him to the limits and get the most out of both of us. It can be quite tough like selection for the Olympic Games in 2016 but at the same time, it's pretty special."

The two will go head-to-head for years to come, at the Olympics, World Champs, Commonwealth Games and the World Cup circuit.

Let them bring the passion and the determination to beat each other. Sport is always better when the emotions are running high. The latest chapter on the Gold Coast will only motivate them to be even better.

Why not enjoy a fierce and tenacious rivalry lined with a hint of begrudging respect, instead of expecting two world-class sportsmen to be best friends.

Henry Rounce is a sports reporter/producer for Newshub.

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