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

Saturday, August 28, 2004

But You're Missing the Point!

Sandeep Dwivedi has a column in the Indian Express bemoaning India's poor Olympic performance (a perennial problem, it seems -- see previous entry), and cites my listing India's last-place finish in the 49er sailing event (reported here). He writes:
We can laugh it off, or we can look at it this way: Do we really need the humiliation of seeing our runners, boxers, archers, wrestlers, swimmers, oarsmen, sailors end up as stragglers?
He's the one seeing this in terms of humiliation, not me. And I believe that athletes understand that there's an element of risk in competition: there is a chance you might win, and a risk that you might lose, even badly. I have the greatest respect for competitors who know they have little to no chance, but try anyway. I have very little respect for people who blame their country's athletes for their perceived national humiliation. (They're there; you're not.) It's not my place to lecture, but I think that if India wants to win, it must not be afraid to lose.

On another note, Alan Lloyd sent me an e-mail a couple of days ago that took issue with one of my arguments:
Great site, and I understand its intent, however I disagree with you when you write "Of course, the worst at the Olympics is still much better than the rest of us could ever hope to do." Anyone can finish last, even me. I want to know how I can get a free trip to Athens and then stroll around the track, what a ride!
No disrespect to Mr. Lloyd, whose e-mail I appreciate receiving, but I meant that the results put in by even the last-place finishers are still better than most of us are capable, not the placing. Yes, anyone could come in last -- assuming they could finish -- but I don't think we could put up the same marks, by and large.

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Touching a Nerve: More Reader Mail

After peaking at slightly more than 50,000 visits on Thursday, traffic here on DFL is starting to ease off a bit. Clearly this little project has touched a bigger nerve than I had expected. From reading your comments (thank you) and the blogs -- more than 130 of them at this point -- that have linked to this site (thank you), I'm getting a sense of why.

There's an awful lot of cynicism about the Olympics these days: it's not just the drugs and doping and the judging scandals, it's the laser-like focus on winning, the strutting of the victors, the lucrative sponsorship deals, the excessive expectations. Many of us have become battle-hardened, turned off by the glitz and the money and the corruption. Some readers have said that this blog has made the Olympics watchable again. Wow.

Other readers come from a different perspective: in the shadow of the glitz and the money, they feel their athletes -- and by extension, their countries -- are the perennial underdogs. If the focus on the Olympic story is solely on the winners -- or on the more colourful, "oddball" last-placers -- then these stories never get told. In that sense, maybe, this blog is more inclusive.

I'll start with an e-mail from Mary in California:
Just a note to thank you for the blog postings. I understand what you're doing and it's not only laudable, it's a lovely gesture to those who might not get more than a passing sympathetic glance from the golden boys and girls and the media. I noticed, also, that reading the results of last place finishers requires quite a bit of effort; as an American and a journalist I'm used to scanning for the "pertinent" bits, who won, how fast were they, and all that truck. Your blog forced me to slow down and actually savor the feats of these DFLs, which they deserve. Just getting to the Olympics requires dedication and training and a level of commitment I can appreciate, if not emulate!
I've received some e-mail from China. Zhangjun writes: "I'm glad to see what you've done. All the athletes should be respected." And Phoebe writes:
I got to know that you made a list of the last athletes in Athens from Chinese website. Well done! We do need to pay attention to those heroes as well. Thank you for doing this.
Sarah writes,
This is an awesome view of the Olympics. Definitely makes it more interesting to watch them now instead of just the winners you got the DFLs. You should honor them by inviting them to a special club or something.
But would they accept? (I haven't heard from any Olympic athletes -- I really hope I've given no one serious offence.)

I thought Cris's e-mail was particularly thoughtful, and not just because nice things are being said about me:
It's funny -- the DFL finisher represents a strange paradox of being at once laughable and dignified. You're right: the spirit of the Games often lies somewhere toward the middle or back of the pack, and considering the sad state of affairs in many nations around the world, it is remarkable that some athletes can represent their countries at all. Your blog puts a clever spin on the way we look at sporting, and somehow we can identify with -- or even envy -- the obscure athlete who competes for the love of the sport and comes closer to glory than most any of us will.
Katie in Cape Town, South Africa:
Not many of us will ever see the Olympic Games from an athlete's perspective and I agree that just being selected and finishing an event is a major achievement. Our country has done OK and I've tried to watch as many of our athletes as possible. Wish I was actually there cheering them on! Congratulations on understanding the "Olympic Spirit" and bringing nations of the world together!
I liked the following e-mail so much I read it on the air when I appeared live on CBC Newsworld yesterday (more on which anon). Koffi Brou Brigitte writes from Côte d'Ivoire (which we in the English-speaking world used to call the Ivory Coast):
I come from Côte d'Ivoire, a little country of Africa. I speak English a little bit, but I understand your fight. Our athletes will return home without any medal. Thank you for all the unknowns, and BRAVO.
Allan Hewitson, a Canadian by his ISP, writes,
What a unique idea -- and keep it up. Your BBC comment that finishing last in the Olympics is better than most of us could do, is, of course the real issue. I take the Games seriously because so many of the participants put so much of their lives into their sports and events. But I maintain my philosophy that there's very little so totally tasteless that you can't get a laugh out of it. This is one of these things.
And finally, another damn Canadian: Gary O'Brien, who lives about an hour away from me in Hull, Quebec, writes,
I followed the link from today's edition of La Presse (Aug. 27) and was quite happy to find such a site. The Olympic Games (esp. athletics) always have great stories, and many involve the non winners, and it is great to follow them in such a way. Bravo and congratulations for your dedication.
Thanks for writing, everyone. I appreciate it very much.

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Our Focus on Losing

Rick Salutin in yesterday's Globe and Mail:
What separates us from those ancient Greeks is not our focus on winning, which the original Olympics also celebrated, but on losing. It's as if there is no merit in loss, since, as U.S. sports icon Vince Lombardi theorized, winning is "the only thing." Losing is stigmatized, there can be nothing of value in it and you ought to doubt yourself if you think there might be. You can hear a note of doubt creep into Olympic athletes' voices when they speak about their pride at having done their best even though they didn't win, as if they sense their compatriots squinting back in disbelief or scorn, implying they're making excuses and should just hang their heads or go soak them. Or they sound puzzled -- since they feel they have fulfilled the Olympic ideal, which certainly involves competition. . . . In the Greek model, there was glory to winners but not ignominy for losers.
(Registration may be required.)

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Results for Friday, August 27

Athletics: Men's 50-km walk: Janos Toth of Hungary finished 41st with a time of 4:29:33, nearly 51 minutes behind the winning time of 3:38:46 and a bit more than 9 minutes behind finisher number 40. There were eight DNFs and five DQs for breaking into a run. Men's pole vault: Several vaulters only cleared the opening height of 5.30 metres and no more, but the last-place finish goes, in a tie, to Kim Yoo-Suk (pun not intended) of Korea and Marios Evaggelou of Greece, because they only cleared 5.30 metres on their third attempt. The winner cleared 5.95 metres in the final. Five vaulters received no mark. Women's long jump: Svetlana Pessova of Turkmenistan's best jump in the prelims was 5.64 metres; the winner's best jump in the final was 7.07 metres. Two jumpers received no mark. Women's javelin: Samoan Patsy Selafina Akeli had a best throw of 45.93 metres; the winner's best final throw was 71.53 metres. One athlete received no mark. Men's 110-metre hurdles: Edy Jakariya of Indonesia had the slowest heat time of 14.11 seconds; the winner's final time was 12.91 seconds. Women's 10,000 metre: Natalia Cherches (mais elle ne le trouve pas) of Moldova finished 27th with a time of 34:04.97; the winner's time was 30:24.36. Four DNFs (including Paula Radcliffe, since some of you are probably wondering). Women's 4×100 relay: Greece widens its lead with a reasonably respectable (it seems to me) 44.45-second result in the prelims; the winning time in the final was 41.73 seconds, and there were three DNFs, two in the heats and one in the final.

Canoe/Kayak (Flatwater Racing): I'm guessing that wind was a factor in these events, because in many cases the slowest times were in the final -- everyone, including the winners, was slower. In many cases I'm going to have to go to place rather than time. Men's 1,000-metre K1: Tony Lespoir (Seychelles) had the slowest time in the prelims at 4:17.128, at least half a minute behind anyone else; the winner's final time was 3:25.897. Men's 1,000-metre C1: Paddling for Croatia, Emanuel Horvaticek's time of 4:27.115 was just marginally slower than the next-slowest preliminary result, but both of them were well back; the winner's time in the final was 3:46.201. Women's 500-metre K4: The foursome from the United States were the only team not to advance to the final. Men's 1,000-metre K2: Danila Turchin and Michail Tarasov (Uzbekistan) were the only team not to advance from the first round. Men's 1,000-metre C2: Jordan Malloch and Nathan Johnson (United States) finished last in the repechage. Men's 1,000-metre K4: The foursome from Uzbekistan did not make it out of the repechage. (I'm not sure they call it a repechage, but it functions as one: top finishers in the prelims get a bye to the final, where the bottom end competes in a semifinal where one or more may be eliminated.)

Cycling: In the women's mountain bike event, Cypriot Elina Sofocleous finished 24th. No time was recorded; she was two laps back. Six riders did not finish.

Equestrian: Argentina's Federico Sztyrle finished 77th; he and his horsie, "Who Knows Lilly", retired after the first qualifier.

Field Hockey: After an 0-5 record in the pool matches and losses to South Africa and Argentina in the classification round, Egypt finished 12th in men's field hockey. George Brink wrote in with the following commentary about Egypt's feat in qualifying for the Games:
The automatic qualifiers for the Games are the Continental Champions so while the other game features the European Champions and the Oceania Champions the last place game had the Pan American Champions, Argentina, and the African Champions, Egypt, in it. Egypt won the African Championships as a complete surprise by beating African powerhouse South Africa so it would have been difficult to get a decent bet on them coming last in the Games. Egypt happily fulfilled expectations by losing the 11th/12th place playoff to Argentina, who for most were complete surprise contenders for this position. Still congratulations to Egypt for getting to their first Olympic Games ever.

Modern Pentathlon: Thanks to a DNF in the equestrian portion, Federica Foghetti of Italy finished 32nd with 4,228 points and was 5:05 behind the winner, who had 5,448 points. Due to the horsey problems in both modern pentathlon events, competitors will be given a choice of mounts in 2008: (1) horse; (2) camel; (3) yak; and (4) Komodo dragon -- cloned velociraptors are not likely to be ready by that time.

Synchronized Swimming: Only eight entrants in the team synchronized swimming event, and Greece finished eighth; their score of 92.750 was 6.751 points behind that of the winners.

Standings to date: What can I say? Greece, Greece and more Greece: Greece's lead widens with three more last-place finishes, eleven overall. The United States and Uzbekistan, with two more last-place finishes each from the canoe/kayak events, take third and fourth places. Croatia, Indonesia and the Seychelles make their first appearances. And Samoa joins Brunei and Somalia in the 100 per cent club -- with as many last-place finishes as athletes.

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Friday's Results

Friday's results will be posted later today/tomorrow (depending on where you are on this planet). Sorry for the delay.

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