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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The Final Tally

Despite Romania's position atop the Torino 2006 last-place standings, I wouldn't read too much into it. This time, to my surprise, there was no runaway champion: both Japan and China also had six last-place finishes, but larger teams; Ukraine had five; South Korea, Poland, Latvia and Russia each had four. It was a close race, and if there is any meaning in the number of last-place finishes a country gets -- and for the record, I don't think there is; I'm just goofing around here -- the caveats and exceptions render it moot. Romania had two athletes with two last-place finishes, so only four of its athletes came last; Latvia, on the other hand, had its entire hockey team come last -- so, in a way, Latvia has more last-place finishers than Romania did. But then, we don't count medals by the physical number of shiny items around discrete athletic necks, but by event. At any rate, I hereby declare the results clear as mud -- and about as significant.

Another surprise, given the final tally at the Athens Games, is that Italy was nowhere near the top. As far as last-place finishes were concerned, Italy finished 21st with only two. As host country, I expected more from them -- the host country automatically qualifies for many events regardless of their World Cup rankings -- but as an Olympic team Italy was just too good.

Quite a few athletes had more than one last-place finish: Florentin-Daniel Nicolae and Daniela Oltean of Romania, Volodymyr Trachuk of Ukraine, Christelle Laura Douibi for Algeria, Veronica Isbej of Chile, and Sabahattin Oglago of Turkey. I chalk this up to the fact that in many disciplines, athletes are signed up for multiple events: many alpine skiers, for example, are registered in all five races, and the same goes for cross-country skiing, speed skating, biathlon and Lord knows what else. Simply put, there are more opportunities to come in last. And in many events, where DNFs sometimes outnumber the finishes, being able to come in last more than once means being able to finish more than once -- and that's apparently no mean feat.

A few countries had every athlete they sent come in last: Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand. It would have been more, but thanks to the qualifying rules, very few events were open enough for countries without a serious winter sports tradition to send an athlete. For example, if most countries have sent their single athlete to the men's 15K or women's 10K classical, as appears to have been the case, then only one of them (obviously) can come in last. Phillip Boit and Prawat Nagvajara were in the same event, after all. When all the obvious candidates are crowded into the same race, you don't have the same results we did during the Summer Games in 2004, when half the countries on the planet had at least one last-place finish.

Speaking of which: some countries didn't have a last-place finish at all. What about Belarus, Canada, the Czech Republic, Norway, Finland or Slovakia? Very interesting that these larger teams -- particularly Canada's, which was huge -- didn't produce any DFLs. You'd expect it just on a statistical basis alone. But unsuccessful athletes at the Winter Olympics are more likely to DNF as DFL: so many elimination rounds, so many technical events where a crash or a missed gate means a DNF.

But in the end, what can I say? It's just a bit of satire: fun at the media's expense, a spoof on the medal race, which never made much sense to me and was given way too much importance in a venue where individual rather than national achievement ought, it seemed to me, to be paramount.

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Expatriate Games

A trend revealed by the last-place results is the number of expatriates competing for their mother countries. Not all of them came in last, but enough of them did that I noticed. Algeria, Argentina and Thailand, all of whom have small teams (two, nine and one, respectively) owe all of their last-place finishes to competitors who live in other countries. On one level, having an athlete live abroad is a common enough occurrence: many athletes must train far from home due to a lack of facilities, or are studying abroad; several compete for other countries for various reasons, and some of them end up on the podium.

But some cases are different. Argentina's last-placers, for example, are American citizens: Michelle Despain, last in the women's luge, has dual citizenship; Clyde Getty, in aerials, has a parental connection to the country. It's a fairly safe bet that in these and other cases, it would be harder to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team (or the French team, or the Canadian team) than it was to meet the basic Olympic standard -- particularly in events where there are spots reserved for each continent, like the sledding events, or a basic quota to allow competitors from noncompetitive countries, such as alpine and cross-country skiing.

I'm not going to fault the athletes for wanting to attend or for seizing the opportunity; indeed, I think it's a courageous thing to do. But it does seem that a loophole is being exploited. Sending expatriates isn't much of a substitute for a decent domestic sport program; their success (or, in my line of work, their lack of it) doesn't reflect much one way or the other on the home country, I think.

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Phillip Boit

Cross-country skier Phillip Boit of Kenya competed in the men's 15-km classical in Torino, where he finished 92nd out of 97. This is his third Winter Games, though; he drew attention in Nagano in 1998, where he finished last in a 10-km event. He's now one of a handful of African cross-country skiers, able to compete under the basic quota and not necessarily doing a bad job of it. More on Boit -- and how a guy from a running mecca in Kenya ended up on the cross-country ski circuit as part of a Nike sponsorship gimmick -- from Strata, the Deseret News and the BBC, all of which date from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

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Results for Sunday, February 26

Ren Long (China)Other than the gold-medal game in men's hockey, the last event in these Winter Games is in cross-country skiing: the men's 50-km free, mass start. (At Salt Lake City it was classic; here it's free.) I awarded the DFL in hockey earlier, so the last DFL for Torino will be awarded for this event. And it goes to 17-year-old Chinese skier Ren Long, who came in 63rd with a time of two hours, 16 minutes and 15 seconds. That's a bit more than 10 minutes behind the gold medallist -- not bad over 50 kilometres. There were 16 DNFs and three DNSes in this race; I had been wondering whether anyone could be out by being lapped in this race, but it doesn't appear to be the case from the results.

Standings to date: China adds one more last-place finish, to end up one of three countries with six. Because it has 80 athletes here, it finishes second to Romania and ahead of Japan. I'll have an entry dedicated to the final tally later today.

Programming note: I'll be wrapping up the Torino Games with a number of entries that, if all goes well, will be posted throughout the day. So even though the last-place finishes are finished, I'm not. Stick around, won't you?

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