Saturday, August 21, 2004

Some Touching Moments at the Olympic Games in Athens

Ethiopia sent a grand total of three athletes to compete in this year’s Olympic Games, and all three went to compete in a single event: the men’s 10,000 meter run. Among the three is Haile Gebrselassie, who, at the age of 33, is the “old man” of the team. He won the gold medal in this race in both 1996 and 2000; and, if he had won the gold medal this year, would have become the first athlete to win the same individual running event in three Olympics. Also on the team is Kenenisa Bekele, a 22-year old runner who, in a period of nine days in May of this year, broke Gebrselassie’s world records in both the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. (The third athlete is Sileshi Sihine.)

In the very early stages of the race, it was clear that the goal of the three Ethiopians was to sweep the medals, and they competed as a team. They traded the task of setting the pace, each one moving into the lead for a lap or two, then falling back to “recover” while the next one led the field. At a certain point, the commentators noted that the pace was slower than expected; and just about that time, Gebrselassie took the lead, and increased the pace; with commentator Marty Liquori (himself a talented runner in his day) pointing out that the change of pace so early would increase the pressure on the other runners, forcing them to expend more energy at an earlier time than they might have preferred. Clearly, the Ethiopians had a plan, and were working to execute that plan.

As the race entered the final laps, it was becoming clear that Gebrselassie was having trouble keeping up with his countrymen, in part due to an injury he had suffered in the period just before the start of the Games. Bekele and Sihine did what they could to slow the pace; but each time another athlete would draw into contention for the lead, they would move back out in front. When it became clear that Gebrselassie could not contend for as medal, the remaining two simply increased their speed; and as they came to the final turn and straightaway, Bekele accelerated and ran alone across the finish line to win the gold medal. Sihine finished second, 4.29 seconds behind Bekele, to win the silver medal; and Zersenay Tadesse of Eritrea won the bronze medal, finishing 17.47 seconds behind Bekele. Gebrselassie finished fifth, 22.6 seconds behind the winner.

I couldn’t help but notice the care and attention the three runners shared; and how they looked in many ways to the “old man” for guidance in the race. I commented to one of my daughters, watching the race with me, that I had no doubt that, if circumstances allowed it, and the three were alone in the lead at the finish, that the younger men would defer to Gebrselassie, running this, “his” event, for the last time, and allow him to win the gold medal. This was not to be; but, as Bekele was tossed the Ethiopian flag to hold for his victory lap, he was joined by Sihine; and the two ran to Gebrselassie. Bekele tried to get his mentor to take the central position; but Gebrselassie insisted that Bekele take the place of honor, and took instead the corner as the three ran their victory lap. (I couldn’t help but comment to my daughter that, in a way, Ethiopians had won all three medals, as Eritrea was once part of Ethiopia…)

This isn’t in any way a negative reflection on others (and especially some of the Americans who have won medals); but the humility, and the respect, shown by these three Ethiopians… well, I find it to be quite moving. Personal achievement and gain were not the only things on their minds, I think. I wish that I was more like that.

Also inspiring (in a different way) is the story (“Celebrate the Underdog”) of a young woman from Afghanistan who finished second to last in the preliminaries of the women’s 100-meter run.

Let's also note the decision by American swimmer Michael Phelps to give up his place on the 400-meter medley relay team to Ian Crocker, who finished 0.04 seconds behind Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly finals. Normally, the winner of the individual event would swim that leg in the relay; but Phelps, who won his fifth gold medal in this race (along with two bronze medals), said that he wanted Crocker to have an opportunity to swim the finals of the medley event. (Phelps swam in the preliminaries, and so will share in any medals won by the team in the finals.) Crocker, who swam first in the 400-meter freestyle relay several days ago, was the slowest of all in the pool, and this may have caused the Americans to finish third in that event, where the team from South Africa won the gold medal, and the Netherlands won the silver medal. I certainly respect Phelp's action to allow others to enter the spotlight, even if he is not "risking" losing a medal, or the spotlight itself. There's no doubt I could learn a lot from this, as well.

As for Gebrselassie? Now that he's "retired" from the 10-K, he intends to focus on running marathons...