All Fall Down
When I talk to the media, they invariably ask me if there are any trends, or if there's any particular last-place finish, that stands out this time. Until the farce with the Austrian ski team over the weekend (reported here and here), I had trouble coming up with an answer -- particularly the kind of answer I suspect they were looking for: something off-beat, something weird. A last-place finish where you could laugh, a bit, at the circumstances if not at the athlete involved, or be blown away by what had to be endured -- something akin to a guy disrupting a diving event by jumping into the pool with advertising on his chest, diving with a stress fracture or running the triathlon with a broken bike. There were lots of examples like these during the Athens Games in 2004.
But the Winter Games are different. In a nutshell, mishaps are more dangerous in winter events. Samantha Retrosi suffered a concussion during the women's luge and had to be carried off in a stretcher. Melo Imai suffered a lower back injury during her snowboarding event and had to be airlifted to the hospital. Airlifts were also required after several crashes during practice runs for the women's downhill last week. But that's not as bad as it can get: Ulrike Maier was killed during a World Cup downhill race in Garmisch-Partenkirschen in 1994.
As I pointed out to one reporter, it's not really funny when athletes have to be rushed to the hospital.
But there's something to at least some of these crashes and falls: something that came out in the results, when speed skaters fall, crash, and make a point of getting back up and finishing the race, even if they're 30 seconds off the pace. Or when Chinese figure skater Zhang Dan fell during an attempted throw quadruple Salchow, and fell hard enough to stop the program, but managed to get back on the ice and nail the routine enough to get a silver medal. Or when Slovenian skier Andrej Sporn missed a gate during his second slalom run in the men's combined, but instead of skiing off the course as a DNF, herringboned back up the slope and re-skied the gate. He went from 2nd place to 33rd place, but he finished. I wonder how many other skiers would have bothered.
There's something to be said about getting back up and putting in a finish even when all hope of a respectable result is lost. For many athletes, finishing matters. Better DFL than DNF. Not that it's possible in every event: a crash in alpine skiing or luge is almost always a DNF, and there's nothing you can do about it. But there's something important being expressed whenever somebody crosses the line after hitting the ground, long after everyone else has finished.