Monday, August 23, 2004

The last shall be first

Inexplicably, I watched all 2 1/2 hours of the uninterrupted coverage of the women't marathon last night. Sitting alone in my living room, I scoffed out loud at the BBC's Olympic pundits who claimed that the heat would be just as trying for the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes as the Brits .(Gimme a break. The Kenyans and Ethiopians were standing around muttering "you call this heat? You don't know from heat.") I rolled my eyes to the ceiling when the same blithering idiots swore that there would be lots of drama to come as the the medal contenders would change places numerous times on the downhill stretch to Athens, despite the significant distances separating the first four runners. And my heart broke with the rest of the UK when I saw Paula come grinding to a painful halt after just 36K. I sat there, pleading with the TV, begging her to get up and walk across the finish line for the sake of her own sanity. Finishing last is always better than quitting.

I know she was exhausted, I know she was in pain--they all were. But it wasn't pain and exhaustion that brought Paula to a halt... it was a broken heart. It's not a cooincidence that she gave up when the fourth place runner pushed past her and she lost the possiblity of even a bronze medal. Without a medal waiting, she saw no point in continuing.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not unsympathetic. I feel terrible for Paula, but I feel a lot worse for the 15 other women who couldn't finish. Women for whom there was never a realistic hope of a medal, but who showed up anyway, eclipsed by the glory of world-record holders, and gave it their best. I don't know who these women are. There was barely a mention of them in the papers. Unlike Paula, who decided after 36 kilometers that if she couldn't win she didn't want to play at all, these 15 women came armed with only a vague hope of a medal, but a more determined desire to just finish, and were ultimately defeated by the road.

I salute all the athletes who try their best. I especially bow to the last-place finishers, those for whom the temptation to quit is the strongest, and who keep going anyway. Though the offical Athens2004 website names the winner, Mizuki Noguchi of Japan, as the athlete of the day, I would like to take a moment to draw everyone's attention to Luvsanlkhundeg Otgonbayar of Mongolia, the last woman into the Panathinaiko Stadium, who crossed the finish line with a time of 3:48:42, an hour and 22 minutes after the gold had been decided.

I don't know what this woman looks like--she received no television coverage. But I imagine she was plugging along at the tail end of the pack, followed only by slow-moving police vehicles, the drivers of whom were irritated that they had to creep along behind this slowest of runners, possibly even mumbling to themselves that she might as well give up so they could go home and eat dinner. It was dark when Otgonbayar entered the stadium. She was exhaused, she was lonely (I suspect very few of the evening's road-side spectators bothered to hang around that long), and she had no hope of a medal. The temptation to quit and go home must have been overwhelming, knowing, when she was still miles away from the stadium, that the ribbon on the line was already broken. But damnit, she crossed the line under her own power. That, ladies and gentleman, is a champion.

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