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

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stories from the Back of the Pack

Every last-place finish has a story. Here are a few from the Beijing Games:

Brazilian cyclist Luciano Pagliarini was suffering from kidney stones.

British diver Blake Aldridge blamed his synchronized diving partner, 14-year-old Tom Daley, for their last-place finish after Daley "popped off" on Aldridge for talking to his mother on his cellphone during the competition.

South African kayaker Sibonso Cele capsized his canoe and missed a gate in his first run, but put in a clean run the second time around.

Hiroshi Hoketsu's horse was apparently discombobulated by a passing airplane.

Italian cyclist Roberto Chiappa was relegated for elbowing Japan's Kiyofumi Nagai during the race.

Homa Hosseini, last in women's single sculls, is one of several groundbreaking female athletes from Iran.

Colin Jenkins acted as fellow Canadian (and eventual silver medallist) Simon Whitfield's "bodyguard" in the men's triathlon.

If you haven't heard any of these stories, I'm not surprised. Last-place finishers only make the news in their home countries, their hometown papers expressing their sympathy while their national media whines about lost medals. Sometimes not even then.

The only times a last-place finish generates international attention is when it's relevant to a national team's chances ("We would have lost except for ...") or truly spectacular in its own right. Usually that's the kind of media coverage no one wants.

It's part of a larger problem: media coverage can be so overwhelmingly focused on the home team that the big picture is missed. Events in which your country has no chance are ignored. Gold medallists from other countries are only shown to explain why your country's competitor came in 12th (this actually happened with the CBC's coverage of the men's hammer throw). And you'll almost never hear someone else's anthem played at the podium.

I was surprised to spend so much time blogging about the ugly nationalistic side of the Olympics in this round of DFL. The 2008 version of this blog has been the angry DFL, wherein I fulminate against the media, national Olympic committees, the IOC, and the general public for their obsession with medals and their tendency to blame athletes for failing to bring back the shiny knick-knacks and making their whole country look bad.

Each edition of DFL has been different: the 2004 version was the funny DFL, in which I navigated a narrow course between cracking wise and not doing so at the athletes' expense; the 2006 version was the earnest DFL, where I focused on injury, grit and character, and how hard it was to get to the Games. By the end of this run, I'm running out of things to say. Apart from reporting the results, I find myself more or less filling in the corners.

And fewer of you are reading it each time. Only half as many of you have visited this time around as you did during the 2006 Torino Games, and one-tenth as many as during the 2004 Athens Games. I'm not bothered; I ought to have done something to, you know, promote this site if I were. The fact that the media ignored DFL this time around -- which made my life a little less crazy, despite some health problems I've had during this run -- means two things: one, my point has been made -- though if the case of Stany the Stingray is any indication, the media has largely ignored that point. And two, my 15 minutes are up. I'm content.

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'Stany the Stingray'

I was right, and I should have looked into it sooner. There was a media frenzy about Stany Kempompo Ngangola, the 34-year-old swimmer from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had the slowest time in the men's 50-metre freestyle. In fact, they were waiting for him, like vultures, before he had even swam; this Australian columnist proclaimed him a friend of Eric the Eel and drew attention to his extremely slow qualifying time. It turns out that that qualifying time was a typo, that he'd never even met Eric Moussambani, and that his result wasn't that bad. I mean, it wasn't good -- 35.19 seconds, 13.89 seconds behind the gold medallist in the final -- but it wasn't Moussambani-class drown-in-the-pool awful. The only ones looking ridiculous here are the media who were fishing for an easy mark -- hoping to find yet another central African to make fun of for a good wacky-Olympics story. I'm delighted that they were disappointed.

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The Final Tally

As Greece did when it hosted the 2004 Olympics, China has won the DFL race. With 14 last-place finishes in the sports I was able to award them in,1 they had six more than the nearest competition, Canada. This is the post in which I explain what this all means.

First, it means nothing. Despite what I predicted, the DFL race has nothing to do with a country's athletic strength. China may have had more last-place finishes than anyone else, but, with 51 gold medals, they also had more first-place finishes than anyone else.

Which brings me to my second point: large delegations lead the last-place standings. With the top 13 countries having at least four last-place finishes, a country with only three athletes will obviously not crack the top 10. The smallest delegation in the top 10 was Egypt's, with 104 athletes; the smallest in the top 20 was Honduras's, with 28. But the top five were either above 300 athletes or within 20 of that number. Small delegations did have some interesting results, though: São Tomé and Príncipe had three athletes and two DFLs; the Cook Islands, San Marino, the British Virgin Islands and Somalia had a 50 percent DFL rate with only two or three athletes. But, as I argued four years ago, better that these countries send athletes to come in last than not send any athletes at all.

Then there's the African team disadvantage: in team sports with continental qualifiers, there will usually be a spot reserved for Africa, which for any number of reasons is not as competitive. The end result is that countries like Angola, Egypt or Mali just get killed in competitions like basketball, field hockey, water polo, and the relay events in swimming and track -- and that runs up the numbers at the end.

Finally, the most significant factor: the home team disadvantage. It didn't occur in the 2006 Winter Games, but they're different. But in the Summer Games it's as close to an iron law as you can get. Greece got 13 DFLs in 2004, but only one this time around. Their team was also less than one-third the size. China's team, on the other hand, went from six to 14 DFLs, and its team grew by half. This is because the home team gets a berth in every event, including events for which that country would not normally qualify. Because they wouldn't normally qualify, they get clobbered.

China didn't put away the DFL title until this weekend, when it DFLed in men's handball, baseball, the men's 4×400 relay, and two kayaking events. The following graph shows the progression of last-place finishes over the course of the Olympics for the top five countries:

Now for some more visualizations. Google Spreadsheets does heat maps. Here's a heat map of the last-place finishes by country:

This is an imperfect representation, of course: it doesn't take into account population, GDP or size of athletic delegation, all of which would be useful in evaluating the meaningfulness of a big pile of last-place finishes. Maybe someone can do some math. But the biggest problem is that this map is too darn small. Fortunately, Google Spreadsheets's map widget can zoom in a bit as well.




The Middle East:

South America:

(Something's not right, because Britain should be the same colour as Italy and Japan. Oh well.)

But, as I've said before (2004, 2006), with limited success, none of this actually means anything. Which is precisely my point about the medal race.

1 Sports not covered: badminton, beach volleyball, boxing, fencing, gymnastics (individual events), judo, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, and wrestling.

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Results for Sunday, August 24

Athletics: No doubt 30-year-old Atsushi Sato of Japan will be the subject of many an attempted human interest story, now that he's finished dead last in the men's marathon. He finished 76th with a time of 2:41:08, which was 34:36 behind the gold medallist. Hardly A Baser Wasiqi territory, but that won't stop the media. There were 19 DNFs and three DNSes.

Basketball: Angola was 0–5 in the preliminaries of men's basketball and, with fewer points for and more points against than Iran, finished 12th.

Handball: In men's handball, China was 0–5 and finished 12th.

Rhythmic Gymnastics: In the qualification round for the group all-around event, the team from Brazil finished 12th with a score of 29.125; it would have taken 31.45 or better to qualify.

Volleyball: In men's volleyball, both Egypt and Japan were 0–5, but Egypt won no sets, whereas Japan won four. Therefore, the DFL goes to Egypt.

Water Polo: In men's water polo, China lost its classification match with Canada on Friday to finish 12th.

Final standings: China finishes with 14 DFLs; Egypt moves into sixth place, Japan moves into ninth, and Angola and Brazil, at the last moment, jump into the top 20. Stand by for an analysis of the final standings.

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