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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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Great Canadian Choke Story

The Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford on the Canadian press corps's predictable return to Canada-chokes-at-the-Olympics-because-it's-day-five-and-we-don't-have-a-medal-yet stories, such as this one (as predicted):
When [Benjamin] Boukpeti [of Togo] won the little West African country's first ever Olympic medal [in kayaking], the gleeful cry went up in the Canadian press corps: "Hey, we lost to Togo! Who we going to lose to next?"
Ah! Losing to a shitty little country like Togo means that the size of our national dicks is in peril. George Carlin, looking down from the big electron, is smiling. Blatchford continues:
Then came that low, familiar rumbling, plain in questions to Alexandre Despatie and Arturo Miranda, who missed out on an expected podium appearance in the synchronized three-metre springboard: Boys, what would you say to all those Canadians back home who really want a medal?
Oh, I don't know; how about this: "Hit the gym and win your own goddamn medal, fatass."

But Blatchford's point, and it's a good one, is that the Canadian media tends to jump the gun about the country's lack of medals. Every single Olympics, the medals come -- they just come later in the Games. Hardly any medals have been awarded yet. And the media ends up looking stupid, as Rosie DiManno surely did when she demanded an apology from Cindy Klassen for winning a bronze, shortly before Klassen went and won more medals than any Canadian athlete in history.

The Olympics are a crucible that reveals a nation's insecurities, and Canada -- though it's by no means alone in this regard -- has them in spades.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Media Inquiries

Because I used to be a reporter myself, and know what it's like (deadlines, editors and all that), I try to be as helpful as I can when a reporter or producer contacts me about doing a story on one of my web projects.

But things got a little hairy here during the Athens Games. I was getting 5-10 media requests a day, and I wasn't prepared for the onslaught. Because I didn't have my contact info in plain view, reporters and producers had to scramble to reach me -- for example, contacting the town hall and the local newspaper (the latter being a bad idea, since I used to work there and left under unpleasant circumstances; they were not inclined to be helpful). I was even getting phone calls from reporters before I was out of bed.

I don't expect things to be nearly as nuts this time around, but just in case, I've done a few things to try to make it easier on everyone.

First of all, I've promised myself that I will not go crazy trying to respond to every media request. Sorry, but I need a life -- and, yes, time to work on this site and elsewhere. I'll probably limit myself to not more than one or two media requests per day. Please understand if I decline -- and I'll try to decline promptly, rather than leave you wondering.

And second, I've updated my contact page to include a special e-mail form for media inquiries. It includes information I need to know -- like what kind of interview you need for me (live or not), what kind of media you work for (print, radio, TV, etc.) and how quickly you need to hear back from me. This allows me to perform triage on the spot: for example, if I'm overwhelmed with work and you need a response from me immediately, then I know I can decline immediately, but if it's less urgent I can fit you in a little later. So, if you're a reporter or producer, use the contact page if you'd like to get a hold of me. Then we'll see.

Update (Feb. 20): For background information, you should look at some earlier posts. From 2004, see Welcome to DFL, A DFL Primer, Reuters, Lovable Losers and a Rant About the Media and DFL Media Roundup. From 2006, see And We're Back and the FAQ. These pages may address some of your questions and, more generally, shed some light on what I'm doing here.

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The Hard Bigotry of High Expectations

More than anything else, I think, this blog is opposed to the idea that anything short of a gold medal is a failure on the athlete's part. Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno writes the usual Canadian whinge about high medal expectations falling short -- written only four days into the Olympics! -- that includes this bit of profound offensiveness about Canadian speed skater Cindy Klassen:
For Klassen, on the weekend, there was bronze in the 3,000 metres, which is hardly failure. But it's hardly the top of the podium either, for an athlete who has become rather accustomed to stepping up there on the World Cup circuit and who had never previously exhibited any tendency toward nerves or excitability or poor judgment in a race.

The Winnipeg native can atone -- a word and concept cited far too frequently, it seems, when the subject is Canadian Olympians -- in any of the races she has left here.
Via Tart Cider. Yes, you read right: DiManno believes that Klassen has to atone for getting a bronze medal.

My default position should come as no surprise: given the stringent qualification rules imposed by the IOC, the various sport governing bodies, and national Olympic committees, I don't think that anyone who manages to get to the Olympics has anything to apologize or atone for.

Now, DiManno's point is about people whose world championships fail to translate into gold medals. To which I would respond, so what? We're talking about someone who still managed to make it to the podium. If the world champion finished 24th, yes, some questions along the lines of "What the hell happened?" might be warranted.

But if world champions were supposed to win all the time, why bother running the races? I think anyone who actually competes in a sport will tell you that, yes, there are other people in their sport who are actually good, and things can happen during competition. If you're so myopic to conclude that if someone else wins, it's because it's your guy's fault, not because somebody else was better or stronger or just plain luckier that day, then you need to pull your head out of your ass and look around at the rest of the field a bit.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

BBC Radio Ulster

If the podcast hasn't sated your appetite for my dulcet voice, I'll be interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra program at around 5:50 PM UTC (i.e., in about an hour and fifteen minutes). If you're not in Northern Ireland, you can listen online.

Update, 1 PM: Well, that was fun. Went much better than I expected.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

DFL Media Roundup

International coverage of DFL was largely based on the Reuters and Agence France-Presse reports (see previous entry on news coverage). In addition to the stories mentioned earlier, I've received links or reports of stories appearing on the web sites of Le Figaro, L'Unità, Il corriere della sera (Milan), and Il corriere del Ticino (Lugano), as well as this Argentine web site, this French web site, Yahoo! France, Ynet in Israel (registration required), TV 2 of Denmark, Australian IT, a Spanish radio station, XTRAMSN (New Zealand) and probably a zillion other places I've missed. Suffice to say, it's gotten around. I'm given to understand that reports also appeared in Colombia, China and on South African radio.

I had an interview with the BBC World Service that turned into this pretty good article. I did another interview for their morning show in East Asia just after the Games to sum up the results. Separately, I had an interview with Irish National Radio as well. (Just keeping track, is all.)

From what I've been able to read -- and for the most part it was just the wire stories translated into other languages -- I'm pretty happy with the coverage: they understood what I was trying to do, and the focus was on the athletes and my arguments about their performance, rather than on me personally.

On the other hand, Canadian coverage focused an awful lot on me, as though I and my background -- the junior high track meet anecdote and my snake breeding was brought up more than once -- were as interesting as what I was doing here. I've never been accused of being boring, and I suppose the fact that a Canadian was responsible for something that was getting international attention was of interest to a national media that will look for the Canadian angle in anything, but I didn't think I ought to have been the focus of attention. I didn't think I ought to have been the novelty; the site should have been.

Of the print stories, the National Post article was probably the best -- well my mother liked it -- though it's for subscribers only online. The Ottawa Sun and Toronto Star articles were, I thought, less good -- the latter looks like an awful lot of cutting and pasting. It also apparently made La Presse, but I didn't see the article.

Other than that, I was on the radio a lot -- I had short interviews with news radio stations in Kitchener-Waterloo, Regina, Toronto and Montreal -- and last Friday made the rounds of the television news networks: first live on CBC Newsworld, then CTV Newsnet (taped then repeated throughout the day). I taped bits for CTV's and Global's national news coverage, but I'm not sure whether they ran. Here's a screenshot provided by a friend from my Newsworld appearance:

This was early in the interview, mere seconds before I learned the fine art of looking into the bloody camera. (They fixed me midway through; it was my first time on live TV.)

Surprisingly, other than the Yahoo! News story and the blogs, there doesn't seem to have been as much U.S. coverage as there was in the rest of the world. Make of that what you will. (I had a few inquiries that I wasn't able to respond to, for example, a couple of radio morning shows that focused a bit too much on the freaky and wacky for my comfort -- I'm not sure they were in it for the same reason I was.) Still, I had plenty of visits from American readers, so word got around even if the U.S. media wasn't by and large interested.

It did make a few "wacky news" digests such as this roundup of Olympic news tidbits -- which interestingly says,
Crowe drew his share of critics for the concept, but give him his due: He invented the one Olympic competition in which a disgruntled runner-up won't be demanding a duplicate gold medal.
Cute line -- but what share of critics? Does Dwight know something I don't? All I've had is a couple of trolls writing e-mails or comments deliberately trying to pick a fight -- typical for a site with any profile. No one has yet mounted a serious attack on me, this site, or the concept. It's a bad media practice to invent a controversy just because you think something might be controversial.

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Monday, August 30, 2004

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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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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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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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

DFL in the News

I'm overwhelmed by the amount of media coverage this little project has been receiving. As a friend just said to me, "And here, I bet, you thought you were just arseing around with a new blog, for lack of anything better to do!" Um, yeah.

The Reuters story has now been picked up by Terra in Brazil and Sify in India. Agence France-Presse filed a report too -- I like some of the quotes they used -- and it's been getting around: in South Africa, it's on the web sites of the Independent, the Mail and Guardian and News 24; it's on the web site of Singapore's Channel NewsAsia; it even made the Khaleej Times of the United Arab Emirates! (Never underestimate the power of the wire services.)

Even the tech news site The Register has a story about DFL -- next stop: Slashdot!

(The National Post reporter contacted me to say that the story, which I referred to earlier, has been held for a couple of days and might run tomorrow.)

I've received a number of media inquiries and I'll do my best to reply to them as soon as I can. I used to be a reporter myself so I understand your needs. In the meantime, reporters would do well to look at the following posts: Welcome to DFL; A DFL Primer; Reuters, Lovable Losers, and a Rant About the Media. That should tide you over until I get a chance to talk to you.

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The Irish Times on Sonia O'Sullivan

The Irish Times has an essay by Keith Duggan on the last-place finish of Sonia O'Sullivan in Monday's women's 5,000-metre final. Via Eamonn Fitzgerald, who has some extremely nice things to say about DFL.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Reuters, Lovable Losers, and a Rant About the Media

Many of you probably have come here after reading the Reuters news story about this blog (it also showed up on Yahoo! News and the New Zealand Herald). Now I'm happy with the coverage, and I had a really nice chat with the reporter, Bernhard Warner, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this "lovable losers" angle. I don't think last-place finishers are necessarily losers; they just happened to come in last.

Not that I'm complaining about the story, but the media in general loves the Eric the Eel and Eddie the Eagle stories -- the winter athletes who've never seen snow before, the marathon runners who finish hours behind the pack. But these stories, interesting and entertaining as they may be, are not representative of the whole. Finishing DFL doesn't mean you were brought to the Games on a short bus; sometimes the coverage in these stories strikes me as just a little patronizing, especially if they're from little countries like São Tomé or Mongolia -- patting them on the head for participating and not taking them seriously, even though most of us couldn't even come close to doing what they just did.

Many last-place finishers are serious competitors -- especially in events with pre-Olympic qualification -- and some are even medal contenders. There are lots of reasons for finishing last, from being rattled by an interfering spectator to deliberately throwing the race. What I hope this blog will accomplish is to shed some light on last-place finishes of every sort.

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Thursday, August 19, 2004

India: Olympic Underachiever

If any country can be said to underperform at the Olympics on a regular basis, it's probably India -- a country of a billion people that usually wins a single bronze medal each time. (So far this year they've got a silver medal, in shooting.) Here's an article that explores India's underwhelming Olympic record.

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Sunday, August 15, 2004

Results for Saturday, August 14

Cycling: According to the unofficial results, Dawid Krupa of Poland finished 75th in the men's road race with a time of 6:00:25 -- 18:41 behind the leader. Dozens of riders, of course, did not finish the 224.4-km race.

Diving: It was synchronized diving on Saturday. Mark Ruiz and Kyle Prandi (USA) came in eighth place in the men's synchronized 10-metre platform; their score of 325.44 was 58.44 points behind the gold medallists. In the women's synchronized 3-metre springboard, Diamantina Georgatou and Sotiria Koustopetrou (Greece) grabbed eighth and last place with a score of 270.33 -- 67.57 points behind the leaders.

Fencing: Nassim Islam Bernaoui (Algeria) placed 39th in the men's individual sabre event Saturday. [Update]

Shooting: In the women's 10-metre air rifle, Macedonia's Divna Pesic finished in 44th place with 368 points -- only 20 points behind the gold medallist. And Rudolf Knijnenburg of Bolivia finished 47th in the men's 10-metre air pistol with 548 points -- only 42 points behind. Not that I know anything about shooting, but the spread between first and last seems awfully close.

Swimming: There are no posted overall results, so I've gone by the slowest result from the heats. In the men's 400-metre individual medley, Nikita Polyakov (Uzbekistan) had the slowest time of 5:09.66 -- more than a minute behind the gold-medallist final time of 4:08.26. In the men's 400-metre freestyle, Malta's Neil Agius finished in 4:22.14; the winner's final time was 3:43.10. Sabria Dahane's (Algeria) time of 5:10.20 was nearly 45 seconds off the winner's pace of 4:34.83 in the women's 400-metre individual medley. I expect the spread in team sports to be closer generally, so it's no surprise that in the women's 4×100-metre freestyle relay, the Swiss team's last-place time of 3:47.47 is less than 12 seconds behind that of the winning team.

Weightlifting: In the women's 48-kg class, Egypt's Enga Mohamed lifted a total of 165 kg, finishing in 14th place; the gold-medal winner lifted 210 kg.

Standings to date: Algeria takes an early first-day lead with two last-place finishes! The rest of the field is in a nine-way tie for second with one last-place finish each.

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