Celebrating last-place finishes at the Olympics. Because they're there, and you're not.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Final Thought

When I first started this blog in August 2004, it was on the premise that by and large athletes who make it to the Olympics are very good at what they do, and even those who come in last are better than the rest of us and as such deserve our admiration.

But for this to be true, it can't be easy to get to the Olympics.

Once upon a time, it was much easier to get to the Games, at least for some. A Haitian athlete ran the 10,000-metre race in 42 minutes at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. No doubt there were other examples of athletes coming to the Games who were nowhere in the same league.

Then came Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards. During one interview I said I had a problem with him, but, truth be told, there was nothing wrong with Edwards, his attitude or his desire to participate. His heart was in the right place. But he shouldn't have been at the Olympics. Other ski jumpers complained that he was making a mockery of the sport. (More likely: they were upset that he was getting all the attention while they trained for years in almost complete obscurity.) The problem wasn't him, it was us; but it was still a problem.

However much we loved the stories of Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, Eric "the Eel" Moussambani, or the Jamaican bobsledders, they helped reinforce an image of last-place finishers at the Olympics that was unfair to everyone else. Almost every time I was interviewed by a reporter, it was stories like these that they were looking for. These stories make for great copy, but they're in no way representative, and in some ways the distortion they generate can be harmful.

Imagine you're an athlete who's been training at your sport for years. Finally, you manage to make it to the Olympics. You compete, and, for whatever reason -- you're a few seconds behind, or you're fighting the flu, or the wax on your skis wasn't right, or you plain goofed for the first time in years -- you end up in last place. You're in the elite in your field; you've put your life into this sport. And now you're going to get lumped in the same category with a guy who nearly drowned in the pool.

The problem with Edwards, Moussambani and other "novelty acts" (as I've called them) is that they made getting to the Olympics look easy, and coming in last a joke. They made it easier for us to devalue participation.

So now it's harder to get to the Games. In some sports there are hard quotas. Even in the most accessible sports at the Winter Games -- alpine and cross-country skiing -- the basic quota that allows one athlete from each sex to participate still necessitates that they compete in the World Cup circuit. You don't have to be competitive, necessarily, but you do have to be a bona fide competitor.

Some might argue that, in keeping Eddie the Eagle away from the Games, something wonderful has been lost. That may be true: there's something to be said about a narrative of someone gamely, but hopelessly, giving it his best shot. But on the other hand, if we want to say that making it to the Olympics is meaningful, and that even last-place finishers have nothing to be ashamed of, then we have to make it hard to get there.

That's essentially what the IOC has done, and it's why my coverage of last-place finishers over two Olympics has featured accidents, injuries, and occasional great stories, but very little in the way of giving my readers someone to laugh at. Which was the point.

This wraps up my coverage of the last-place finishes at the Torino Winter Olympics. I hope you enjoyed it.

(For previous essays of this sort from the Torino Olympics, see All Fall Down and The Hard Bigotry of High Expectations. For day-by-day coverage, other features and older material from the 2004 Athens Olympics, see the calendar on the right-hand side of this page.)

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  • At 2:56 AM, February 27, 2006 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thanks for running DFL again! I appreciate the different perspective on the events - during our trip to the Salt Lake City games four years ago, I developed a great appreciation for the many competitors that the mainstream media never shows you - the effort they put in, the personal bests, the courage and honor.

    As your subtitle says, they're there, and we're not. And there's a lot to be said for that. Thanks again.


  • At 9:52 AM, February 27, 2006 ,