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

Friday, August 08, 2008

Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards: 2003 NPR Interview

On a related note, here's a 2003 NPR interview with Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, on the subject of the IOC's crackdown on wild card participants who could not meet a minimum standard. Naturally, Edwards was against it. For my take on the issue -- basically, that the desire to participate was laudable, but it reinforced an image of last-place finishers as jokes -- see this entry from 2006; see also this entry from 2004.

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Wild Cards?

This article on the official Beijing Olympics site announces the wild card lottery winners for the one swimming event -- the 50-metre freestyle -- designated for the wildcard draw. I haven't had much luck in my attempts to find out more about this wild card lottery. The article says that it exists to help developing countries send athletes to the Games. There is apparently a Tripartite Commission that handles invitations under the wild card system, but I have yet to find a single Web page that explains what the Commission does. All I've found is references to the Commission in pages about various sports or national Olympic committees. The wild card system also seems to be limited to countries with very small delegations; several countries have discovered this when they tried to send their athletes to the Games under a wild card.

As I said, I'd like to know more about how this system works -- from what I can gather, it's about the only avenue left for, shall we say, noncompetitive competitors.

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Cashing in on the Games

My impression is that most of the people who like this site are those who are fed up by the insipid media coverage, crass commercialism, and focus on winning a gold medal to the exclusion of all else. If that sounds like you, and I suspect it does, you will almost certainly hate this very good article from last Sunday's New York Times, which looks at agents and endorsement deals in that cesspool of commercialism, U.S. women's gymnastics. The focus is on Nastasia Liukin's agent, Evan Morgenstein, as he tries to come up with sponsorship deals during a very short athletic career.
Liukin, who before this year was virtually unknown to all but devout gymnastics fans, can be seen performing aerial magic on a Visa commercial narrated solemnly by Morgan Freeman; appearing online in the AT&T blue room; touting CoverGirl makeup and Secret deodorant; and soon smiling from billboards in ensembles from Vanilla Star jeans. Morgenstein called these endorsements his effort to "help a kid achieve a dream."

The rewards of this dream can vary, from $50,000 to $100,000 per deal before the Games to possibly millions if an athlete wins gold. Gymnastics in particular is a sponsorship bonanza. Since 1984, when the gold medalist Mary Lou Retton became the first female to land on the front of a Wheaties box, women’s gymnastics has become a national obsession, inordinately popular during the Summer Games. The opportunities to make money have therefore become both vaster and far more complicated. Technology and globalization have the capacity to turn an Olympic champion into not just a Wheaties star but also a worldwide role model. "The things we’re doing with Nastia -- we’re taking her to a higher level," Morgenstein told me in mid-June. “Of course,” he added almost as an afterthought, "she still has to do well in Beijing."
I know: women's gymnastics as practised in the U.S. is nuts. So, for that matter, is women's figure skating. Both events are so appealing to a certain demographic, and as a result draw in so much money, that they've had the shit corrupted out of them. For athletes spending a decade eating pasta, this report may as well have come in from the Cassini probe: it's utterly alien to the rest of the Olympic experience, where even gold medals can be won in comparative obscurity.

This epitomizes so much of what is wrong with the Games, and why you and I are here at the back of the field, looking for something a little closer to the purported Olympic ideal.

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DFL 2.0

A couple of features new to DFL this time around. First, this blog now has a page on Facebook, so if you're on Facebook, why not visit, become a fan, and say hello. And second, I'm using Twitter to post short and pithy observations about the Olympics, not necessarily about last-place finishes; I'll be using it, for example, to provide a running commentary on the opening ceremonies, which are imminent. If you're a Twitter user, feel free to follow the DFL account; the most recent Twitter posts ("tweets") will be on the sidebar as well.

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Let the Games Begin

It's likely that if you're reading this blog entry within a day or two of my posting it, you're probably familiar with DFL and its purposes and methods. If so, welcome back: all you really need to know is that DFL is back for the 2008 Beijing Games.

If, on the other hand, you're new to this blog, a little explanation might be in order.

DFL is a blog that celebrates participation in a smartassed way, by chronicling the results of the Olympic athletes who come in last place in their events. The premise is simple: that anyone capable of making it to the Olympics is deserving of our respect and praise; that anyone competing at the Games is almost certainly better at their sport than anyone who isn't at the Games; and that even a last-place finish at the Olympics is an impressive achievement -- because it's the Olympics.

Here's how it works. I report on the last-place finishes in every event, except for those events in which a last-place finish is not possible. (In boxing, for example, you might have 16 boxers eliminated in the first round; there's no way to figure out which of them is in last place.) When I give the last-place result, I will frequently compare it to the gold medallist's result, to give you a sense of the spread. Many readers have noticed how competitive the field really is, and have noted in specific cases that a last-place result would have blown away the competition at any weekend track meet.

An important point is that an athlete must finish to qualify as a DFL -- disqualifications, DNSes and DNFs are not eligible for this (admittedly dubious) honour. A DFL is different from a DNF: it's the worst mark on the board, but it is, at the very least, a mark on the board.

DFL's tone is irreverent -- DFL, after all, stands for "dead fucking last" (it's athletes' slang) -- but my purpose is not to mock last-place finishers. I'm often asked what Olympic athletes think of this blog. To be honest, I've never heard from one, but I can't imagine anyone actually enjoying being mentioned here. Nobody goes to the Olympics planning to come in last. But in almost every competition, someone has to.

No, I target those who feel humiliated or expect an apology when their country's athletes don't perform up to their standards. I don't like it when people take their national insecurities out on their athletes.

And I really don't like the nationalist bullshit that is the medals race, where something is being measured, but it isn't athletes' performance. Which is why I satirize it with standings of my own, by tabulating the number of last-place finishers by country. The country with the most last-place finishes at the end of the Games "wins." Ties will be broken by the size of a country's athletic delegation, if possible -- i.e., a country with six last-place finishes but 40 athletes will finish "ahead" of a country with six last-place finishes but 80 athletes.

The point here is to take the piss out of the medals race by providing its opposite, but there has been a tendency, during the past two Olympics, to take it a little too seriously, as though the fact that Greece had the most DFLs in 2004 and Romania had the most in 2006 actually mean something. The fact is, the medal standings don't mean anything either. Each race, each competition, each sport is sui generis.

There's always a story in every last-place finish. For the most part, it's pretty mundane: in a relatively evenly matched field, someone was just a few seconds -- or even a few tenths of a second -- slower than everyone else. Sometimes a last-place finish is the result of an accident or bad luck, and sometimes it leads to a tremendous expression of character: the triathlete who grabs his bike and jogs to the finish line; the alpine skier who skis back to redo a missed gate. As I argued during the 2006 Torino Winter Games, "there's something important being expressed whenever somebody crosses the line after hitting the ground, long after everyone else has finished."

And, yes, sometimes it's that loveable goofball in the mold of Eric the Eel or Eddie the Eagle that the media craves. Now that the IOC and national Olympic committees have cracked down on noncompetitive competitors, there aren't as many characters as there used to be. But the stereotype persists, to the detriment of everyone else who comes in last.

There are, in other words, a lot of different kinds of last place finishes; DFL looks at them all.

It'll be about a day before the first results come in; while you wait, why not peruse the archives from the 2004 Athens Games and the 2006 Torino Winter Games? (Daily archives are available via the calendar on the sidebar.) I also have a few other items for you that I'm working on, plus some housekeeping items that I should have wrapped up by the weekend.

Thanks for stopping by. Let the Games begin!

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