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

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Reuters, Lovable Losers, and a Rant About the Media

Many of you probably have come here after reading the Reuters news story about this blog (it also showed up on Yahoo! News and the New Zealand Herald). Now I'm happy with the coverage, and I had a really nice chat with the reporter, Bernhard Warner, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this "lovable losers" angle. I don't think last-place finishers are necessarily losers; they just happened to come in last.

Not that I'm complaining about the story, but the media in general loves the Eric the Eel and Eddie the Eagle stories -- the winter athletes who've never seen snow before, the marathon runners who finish hours behind the pack. But these stories, interesting and entertaining as they may be, are not representative of the whole. Finishing DFL doesn't mean you were brought to the Games on a short bus; sometimes the coverage in these stories strikes me as just a little patronizing, especially if they're from little countries like São Tomé or Mongolia -- patting them on the head for participating and not taking them seriously, even though most of us couldn't even come close to doing what they just did.

Many last-place finishers are serious competitors -- especially in events with pre-Olympic qualification -- and some are even medal contenders. There are lots of reasons for finishing last, from being rattled by an interfering spectator to deliberately throwing the race. What I hope this blog will accomplish is to shed some light on last-place finishes of every sort.

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New Zealand Kayaking Controversy

Controversy has erupted in New Zealand as a result of a deliberate last-place finish by one of its athletes. Kayaker Steven Ferguson deliberately paddled slowly to finish last in his K1 500-metre heat earlier today in order to avoid making the semifinals. He was nursing a back injury and wanted to save himself for the K2 1,000-metre final, where he and his teammate are medal hopefuls, but didn't withdraw from the 500-metre K1 because you can't withdraw from just one event: if you pull out, you're disqualified from the entire regatta.

Now this didn't go over well with everyone: New Zealand kayaker Owen Hughes -- not at the Games -- called Ferguson's actions "pathetic" and an "embarrassment," saying that Ferguson's spot in the race could have been occupied by someone who was willing to compete, and alleged that the reason Ferguson had that spot was because his father, Ian Ferguson, was the team's coach.

It's not always sweetness and light at the back of the pack, is it? (Thanks to Alan and Regan for help with this story.)

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Alexander Penna in 2002

Matt posted a great link in the comments to this essay by a volunteer at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games describing the last-place run of Brazil's Alexander Penna in the 50-km classic cross-country ski competition. (Brazilian skier. Insert favourite joke here.) It's an absolutely riveting read and well worth your attention. I mentioned before that if there is a spirit of the games, it exists closer to the back of the pack than the front, and this is more evidence for it. Is it there only for the hopeless causes, or does it also exist for those who want to win, or even those who might have a fighting chance at it? Maybe our hearts are warmed by the fact that they're simply there, with no expectations to be crushed.

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A DFL Primer

Until DFL was posted to MetaFilter Sunday night, I was working in near-complete obscurity. But now the cat's out of the bag, and you're coming by the thousand, whether from MetaFilter, elsewhere on the web, or, so I'm told, Tuesday's edition of the National Post. Since you likely haven't read my opening entry (and you should, because it sets out the philosophy of this project), let me recap what I'm trying to do here.

I'm keeping track of last-place finishers in as many events at the 2004 Athens Games as I can. They have to finish: DNFs, DNSes, DQs and NMs don't count here. I give the last-place result and compare it to the winning result in the final if it's meaningful. I never mention the gold medallist's name here -- they get enough press.

I'm also only recording events where a last-place finisher is reasonably possible to figure out. In certain events, you might have 16 people knocked out in the first round, and it would be all but impossible to figure out who came last of all. That means that I haven't been covering badminton, boxing, fencing, judo, table tennis, tennis or wrestling (so far). I'm also having trouble figuring out gymnastics.

If I've made a mistake in interpreting the results -- and boy, I know I've made several already -- and you can straighten me out, drop me a line or point it out in the entry's comments.

If you're looking for a specific event, here's how I've organized the site. The archives (see the sidebar on the right) are organized by day, and each post has an individual page as well, where comments can be left. I try to post the results either on the same day or the next; sometimes I'm late. Even if I have to go to the preliminary heats to find the last-place finisher, I wait until the finals are done.

The standings table (at right) gets updated a little while after the most recent post; it's coded by hand so it takes me a few minutes to do. Each country gets one point per last-place finish. Ties are broken by the size of the countries' Olympic delegations: it's much more impressive for two of four athletes to finish last than two of four hundred athletes. It's not meant to be taken too seriously, anyway.

Finally, I've also been posting links to stories about (or relevant to) last-place finishers. They're interesting reading, and I'm afraid they'll get lost as they drop off the front page, so here they are again.

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Results for Monday, August 23

Athletics: Women's 20-km walk: Fumilay Fonseca of São Tomé and Príncipe finished 52nd with a time of 2:04:54, which was 35:42 behind the winner and about 15 minutes behind the next-to-last finisher. Three walkers did not finish and two were disqualified, presumably for breaking into a run. Women's triple jump: Athanasia Perra of Greece had the shortest best jump in the qualifying rounds at 13.19 metres; the winner's final jump was 15.30 metres. Men's discus: Samoan competitor Shaka Sola's result of 51.10 metres was the lowest in the qualifying rounds; the winner's final result was 70.93 metres. Women's 800 metre: With a time of 2:32.10, Sanna Abubkheet of Palestine had the slowest time in the heats, well behind the other competitors and considerably behind the winner's time of 1:56.38. There was one DNF in the heats. Men's 400 metre: Abdulla Mohamed Hussein of Somalia had the slowest heat time, 51.52 seconds. This race was a bit tighter: the winner's final time was an even 44 seconds.

Cycling: In the men's team pursuit qualifying round, New Zealand's foursome finished 10th with a speed of 57.411 km/h. The winning team's speed in the final was 60.445 km/h.

Softball: With a 1-6 record in the preliminaries, Italy ended up at the bottom of the final standings. But bear in mind that only eight teams were in the softball tournament.

Weightlifting: Aruba's Isnaro Faro finished 19th in the men's 94-kg event, lifting a combined total of 307.5 kg. I don't think he was too far off the pace, though: the winner lifted exactly 100 kg more, and those in between lifted from 320 kg on up. Six athletes received DNFs.

Standings to date: Insofar as final results in sports I can figure out a last place finisher for are concerned, this was a comparatively light day. Greece seems determined not to let the most last-place finishes crown slip through its fingers. Results from Palestinian and Somalian competitors are rather distressing: fully half of their Olympic delegations (four each) have now finished last. And it's great to see cute little islands enter the list; I bet you don't even know where São Tomé is!

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