Sun. Aug 22, 2004
Day 9, Speed versus Distance
It was 102 degrees at the starting line, followed by mile after mile of a hellish hilly course. 26 miles, mostly uphill. Steep hills. The very same course that killed a man of legend, in the original run after the Battle of Marathon. Yet, on Sunday the one who bested this course and field of the world’s finest was a mere 4’10” tall, 90 pounds in weight, Mizuki Noguchi: “One woman did try to enter the inaugural race in 1896 — a Greek named Stamata Revithi — but she was turned away by the organizers. It would take 108 years for the women to get their Olympic star turn, and Noguchi’s winning time was 32 minutes faster than the winning time recorded by the Greek shepherd turned soldier turned hero when he won in 1896.”
The women’s marathon had tremendous contrasts. There was American Deena Kastor, who finished the last yards of the race nearly overcome by tears of joy. It wasn’t because she was certain of anything other than the fact she’d finished the race: “It was incredible. The whole last lap I was in tears. I didn’t know if I had finished fourth or third.” I’ve seen it before, where all of the many months of hard work, the 70-100 miles per week of training, the support of friends and family, all come to a mental climax in those closing yards. And there’s overwhelming joy at the accomplishment, the completion of the goal, to compete against the world’s finest, to do your best … and finish the race.
Contrasting with Kastor was Paula Radcliffe: “After breaking down at the side of the road, Radcliffe was accompanied by her husband and coach Gary Lough and her parents for the medical at the Panathinaiko Stadium, scene of the marathon finish. It is thought the two-times London Marathon winner was tired and exhausted rather than seriously injured in any way.” My conjecture is that she was beaten psychologically and emotionally, by the course, and by herself. She dropped out when she got passed and dropped into fourth, not long after the grueling uphill section had passed. Knowing she didn’t have enough left to regain a medal position, with only three miles left, she no longer cared to finish.
Another contrast: “And, having received medical treatment, [Radcliffe] was whisked away into the night past the waiting reporters, flash bulbs lighting up her face. Just a few minutes later the final athlete on the course, Mongolia’s Otgonbayar Luvsanlkhundeg, staggered across the line — one hour and 22 minutes outside the winning time.” But she finished. Not only that, she beat the vaunted favorite, Paula Radcliffe. And bless NBC, they stuck with the coverage at the finish line for about 25 minutes after the medal winners were done. To me, what you saw in those final 20 minutes encapsulated the Olympics as well as any 20 minutes of TV during these 16 days.
In the Men’s 100 meter dash, you’ve got an entirely different mentality. All that training, all that athletic energy, is up, over, and done in less than 10 seconds. In an event where a mere four hundredths of a second was the distance between gold and no medal at all, the psychological games become more prevalent than in other events. The swagger content is through the roof. If Muhammad Ali had competed in track and field, he would have been a 100 meter man. In attitude, these guys are the “fighter pilots” of the Olympics; cocky, and sure they are the best.
Maurice Green had been talking about winning back to back gold medals so he could prove he’s the “Greatest Of All Time. He actually has “G.O.A.T.” tattooed on his bicep, and slaps those tattoos during his pre-race chest thumping psych up. He had to settle for bronze this time, and pass the torch on to a younger man, 22 year old Justin Gatlin.
How much better was Gatlin? 0.01 second better than 2nd place, and 0.02 seconds better than Green’s 9.87. The exact time that won Green the gold medal four years ago.
But at ESPN, Eric Adelson argues that Gatlin is better in other ways as well: “While Maurice Greene bounced and snarled and Asafa Powell laid down on the track and Shawn Crawford winked and grinned and pointed to himself, Gatlin simply stared down the track almost longingly. His eyes filled with tears as the sound and the moment wrapped itself around him [...] He cried. We will all remember the sight of Gatlin crying. That’s a change from the head-shakers and chest-pounders of years past. He dropped to his knees and prayed when he won. He placed his winner’s wreath on a friend’s head. He dedicated the race to his high school coach. He called Greene flawless. He called Crawford’s friendship a blessing. He said he was honored to even be in the race.”
There’s the key: “honored to even be in the race.”
For me, the attitudes represented by athletes like Radcliffe, Green, Crawford, and LeBron James aren’t what the Olympics are about. The swimmer who scowls at a silver medal, or the athlete who drops out rather than finish with no medal at all is missing the point entirely. I enjoy the Olympics because of the Gatlins, the Kastors, and “the final athlete on the course, Mongolia’s Otgonbayar Luvsanlkhundeg, stagger[ing] across the line.”
The ones who are honored to even have the chance to compete in the Olympics.