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In high-low poker the person with the best hand of cards splits the cash pot with the person with the very worst hand. I mention this because, in addition to spotlighting the world’s best athletes, every Olympics seems to feature an athlete or a team who wins the hearts of the fans because they are in way over their head. The 1988 Olympics in Calgary, which marked the apogee of this trend, featured several different underdogs who became more famous than the actual winners. The Jamaican bobsled team came from a nation which doesn’t have ice except in tropical drinks. Their story is actually an inspiring tale of Olympic fraternity: other bobsledders lent them equipment (including bobsleds!) and helped them out with coaching and advice. Although they did not officially finish in 1988, they showed great improvement and returned in subsequent winter Olympics (and were canonized in a not-entirely-accurate John Candy comedy). Here’s a video of them zig-zagging down the track and crashing (it isn’t a practice run either).
The 1988 Olympics also featured my favorite Olympic story—Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, a far-sighted, big-chinned amateur British ski-jumper. When I say “far-sighted” I don’t mean he looked deep into the future of the sport, I mean his vision was seriously impaired and he had to wear heavy glasses at all time. These spectacles would fog up during his jumps which caused all sorts of problems (and you really don’t want any problems on a ski jump). Eddie ran out of funds, so he trained with ski boots many sizes too large and lived rent-free in a Finnish mental hospital (ostensibly as a low rent boarder rather than as a patient). On each of his jumps Eddie skirted dangerously close to death or contusion, yet he always provided an immensely entertaining spectacle. The audience was a bit baffled by the flying-squirrel-like physiques and esoteric gliding skills of the winning ski jumpers, but bonded instantly with a lunatic everyman sliding off an immense ice-ramp for reasons of obdurate pride.
In the 1998 winter Olympics, the Japanese women’s hockey team (which was made up of miniscule, hyper-polite athletes) earned an automatic invitation to the tournament because Japan was hosting the Olympics. I seem to remember watching a match where they were playing against craggy-faced giants from some icebound northern country and every single Japanese player fell down at the same time. Some of them didn’t (or couldn’t) make it upright for a while.
In 2000 Eric Moussambani Malonga (aka “Eric the Eel”), a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, stunned the world by taking longer to complete the 100 meter freestyle than competitors from other nations took to swim the 200 meter freestyle. “The Eel” who had been training for only eight months in a tiny hotel pool, had qualified for the Olympics when the two other swimmers in his heat were disqualified. He swam his heat by himself—and won (even though he appeared to be sinking at the end).
Of course I would not mention these famously…tenacious…Olympians of yesteryear if the 2012 games did not already feature an athlete notable for his gallant but ineffectual effort. An optimistic (albeit small-framed) sculler has already made a name for himself by, well, by not rowing as quickly as his competitors. Hamadou Djibo Issaka was working as a gardener in the landlocked desert nation of Niger until he received a wild card spot (which nbcolympics.com explains are issued “to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified.”) Although Djibo Issaka only practiced rowing a single scull for 3 months prior to the Olympics he demonstrated his spirit and determination by competing against the finest rowers in the world. Yesterday, he gamely rowed a 2000 meter course in front of 20,000 cheering spectators. Although he finished 300 meters behind his closest competitor in the heat, he was pleased not to have fallen out of his boat (which is what happened the first time he got in a scull in a two-week camp last November) and he is enthusiastic about Niger’s future rowing opportunities once they actually get sculls to practice with.
Although he is now known as “the sculling sloth” the 35 year old Djibo Issaka was undaunted by his last place finish. He will be rowing again on Friday and is looking forward to 2016. I am glad that the Olympics include all sorts of athletes! It makes the entire spectacle more exciting and unpredictable. The gold medal champions embody the Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”), but the amateurs who refuse to give up embody the Olympics creed. To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”