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

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Final Tally

We Have A Winner: In the end it was no contest: Greece had the most last-place finishes -- 13 of them. The next highest result was Australia with eight; Poland and the United States had seven each; Egypt and China had six each; and a total of 25 countries had three or more last-place finishes.

Right. Fine. So what does it mean?

Not much, really. I never took this nearly as seriously as some of my readers, and especially not as much as the media. It was more a satire on the medals race at each Olympics -- where, it seemed to me, something was being measured, but it wasn't athletes' performance.

But, fun aside, where are these last-place finishes coming from? The reasons for some of them are easy enough to guess.

Most countries that had a lot of last-place finishes sent a lot of athletes. Interestingly, eight out of the 10 top last-place-finishing countries had more medals than last-place finishes -- only Egypt (five medals, six last-place finishes) and Kyrgyzstan (no medals, four last-place finishes) did not. A country may enter three athletes in one event, with one winning, one placing in the middle of the pack and one finishing last. Countries with large delegations tend to have entered a lot of team sports as well. So a lot of it can be attributed to the law of averages -- the more athletes you enter, the more opportunities you have to come in last.

Greece, as the host country, was able to compete in events for which it ordinarily might not have been able to qualify. Many of their last-place finishes were in team events -- relays, soccer, synchronized swimming. Some athletes may not have been sent if the Games were held somewhere else. But who would deny them an opportunity to compete in front of their home crowd. The host's prerogative is probably behind most of Greece's last-place finishes. In any event, they still won 16 medals.

Several of Egypt's last-place finishes were in team sports where, presumably, there were continental qualifiers -- they were the top African team, and got slaughtered by teams from other continents with more depth of talent. Team sports in general were an interesting dynamic: with only eight to 12 spots, it wasn't easy to get in and finish last in the first place. A last-place finish in water polo or volleyball is a different thing than in sports where entering an athlete was a bit easier.

Those were the only trends that leapt out at me; the rest can probably be attributed to random chance and individual performance -- where injuries, stress, and the plain fact that some people are just better at a given thing than others, were the deciding factors. I'm sure some readers may see some patterns themselves; give us your best take in the comments.

The One Hundred Per Cent Club: Based on the athlete numbers that were available to me, Brunei Darussalam, Samoa and Somalia had the dubious distinction of having every athlete they sent to the Games finish last in at least one event -- they sent one, three and two athletes, respectively. A BBC interviewer asked me about this yesterday -- how should Samoans feel? Proud of their athletes, naturally. But, now that I've thought about it, which would have been better: to send a few athletes and have them finish last, or to send no athletes at all?

Individual Achievement: Several athletes scored last-place finishes in more than one event. Macedonia's Divna Pesic finished last in two of shooting events; Diamantina Georgatou of Greece finished last in both single and synchronized 3-metre springboard diving. There were several canoers with two last-place finishers as well: Emanuel Horvaticek of Croatia finished last in the 500- and 1,000-metre C1; Jordan Malloch and Nathan Johnson of the United States finished last in both the 500- and 1,000-metre C2. There may have been others elsewhere that I didn't catch. Congratulations to all of them for (presumably) trying their best in more than one event.

The Events Not Covered: Badminton, beach volleyball, boxing, one cycling event, fencing, individual gymnastics, judo, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis and wrestling.

Fun with the Results: Readers have asked for more detailed results -- last-place finishes compared with medals, last-place finishes divided by the number of athletes (compensating for team events, so that every member of a team is counted when the whole team finishes last), last-place finishes compared with a country's population. I'll leave them as an exercise for the curious. Feel free to play with the numbers and share the results in this entry's comments.

Tomorrow I'll try to wrap things up with a final look at media coverage of DFL: not just where this little project has been covered, but how it's been covered.

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Media Coverage of Last-Place Marathoner

I was wrong: the nonsense regarding the loony priest did not prevent the news media from writing about the marathon's last-place finisher, Marcel Matanin. Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg still thinks it makes a great human-interest story, though the tale of the 30-year-old Slovak who took up the marathon because it was in Greece is somewhat more mundane than past Olympic DFLs. Thanks to Debra for the catch.

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