x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Olympics: They came, they saw and competed

Olympics 2012: Non-winners can still grab attention at the Games for the spirit and sheer determination to complete their event.

Noor Hussain Al Malki was among the first four females to represent Qatar at the Olympics.
Noor Hussain Al Malki was among the first four females to represent Qatar at the Olympics.

If all the Olympic hype, noise, nationalism, commercialisation, corruption, doping history and (oh, jeez) badminton cynicism get you down, there are always the vivid non-winners.

Vivid non-winners have a rich legacy and a fine meaning. In some ways, they make the thing go.

Certainly they make the audiences stand.

They include the 37th-place finisher out of 44 in the inaugural women's marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

She would be Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, the 39-year-old Swiss ski instructor who became unforgettable upon entering the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the final bit of 42 kilometres.

Twenty minutes after Joan Benoit won, Andersen-Schiess staggered with heat prostration. Her left arm sort of dangled. Her right leg stayed horribly straight. Medical personnel approached, but she refused them because it would mean disqualification.

She stopped occasionally, held her head. She meandered. She took five minutes and 44 seconds to travel the final 400 metres, and when she finished, she fell into the arms of waiting staff.

Some 70,000 spectators anguished and cheered and surely never forgot the runner in the red tank-top. A vigorous debate ensued over whether they should have stopped her. In 2007, she told the Los Angeles Times, "You try to at least finish your event."

Barcelona 1992, of course, brought another vivid non-winner, from the fifth lane amid eight contestants in a 400-metre semi-final. Around a turn into a straight, Derek Redmond of Great Britain tore a hamstring and started hobbling almost grotesquely.

After about three staggers, he crumpled to the track. For a bit he knelt and stopped in his blue shorts with his stationary number 749. Then he started skipping, declining officials trying to help. Soon another figure entered both the picture and Olympic lore.

And as his father, Jim, arrived and put an arm around him and helped him to the finish line while the runner wailed into the father's right shoulder, some 65,000 spectators roared, having seen one of the searing moments in all the Games.

At Sydney 2000 came Eric Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinean swimmer, whose time of 1:55.72 in the 100-metre freestyle more than doubled that of the front-runners and exceeded that of the world record in the 200 metres.

Yet it would be hard for anyone in the Australian arena that day to forget a contestant who had never seen a 50-metre Olympic pool before, and who had trained in a hotel pool, and who strained through the last 15 metres.

To their ranks now, add the triple non-winners of this past Friday in London: a dozen strides, an 82-second judo match and a last-place finish.

In a preliminary for the women's 100 metres, the Doha-born 17-year-old Noor Hussain Al-Malki started off on her Olympic quest, in a stadium seating 80,000. She made about 12 strides. She wound up in a wheelchair and saying in Arabic, to a TV station, "I am sad."

She had pulled a hamstring, clutched her right leg, fallen to the track. In a way, given all the nerves entailed in doing something so momentous, you almost wonder why this doesn't happen more often. Yet for those dozen strides she had become the first Qatari woman to compete in track and field, among that country's first-ever four female Olympic athletes.

At the judo, the crowd erupted, according to various reports, as the public address called the name of Wojdan Shahrkhani, the first Saudi woman to compete in an Olympics.

Wrote the UK-based Saudi blogger at saudiroot.com, "I had shivers down my spine while her name was being called out to take her place in the arena, and the crowd cheered so loudly for her - I would say almost as loud as the cheers for Team GB!"

Against Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico, she lasted 82 seconds, which meant nothing and so much, all at once.

And then, Heat 6 of the women's 400-metre qualifying had much more significance than just your average Olympic Heat 6. It included 19-year-old Maziah Mahusin, Brunei's flag-bearer in the opening ceremony and that nation's first female Olympian.

The 59.28 seconds in which she finished her heat did not come close to the front, but it did mark a personal best, a feat in an overwhelming setting.

To reporters thereafter she said, "I'm really proud, even though I didn't win anything, even though I didn't get into the semi-final or whatever."

Think of all the day-to-day obstacles the three have endured, and induct them into any non-winners' hall of fame.

Like the three up above and others, they should stay in memory.

They are amazing people.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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