Memories of the XXXI Olympiad (I)

Each edition of the Olympic Games is connected to names, faces, usually of outstanding athletes with remarkable accomplishments. It’s just the same this time, and who would argue that these were also the Games of Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Katinka Hosszu, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, Neymar and many other heroes of the front pages of international newspapers and sports magazines. But in fact, many more names, faces, heroes emerged during these Games, and it is my feeling that their number is ever increasing. And so is the number of remarkable stories to tell.
Therefore, this brief list can only be a very small part of a much broader picture, an Olympic mosaic created from diversity, formed into a unique symbol of hope, of peace and understanding that the Olympic Games, however serious the circumstances, however threatening the crisis may be, still are. Some of these athletes have won a medal, even gold, while others were quite far from that. But they all belong to these Games, belong to the fantastic tales of Rio 2016.

Speaking of brief lists, as I collected the names and stories, as the faces appeared again in my mind, I realized that they won’t fit into one article. Therefore this is only the first part of (at least) two of them…

Abbey D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (NZL) – Athletics

There are more important things in the Olympics than winning. A saying almost as old as the Games themselves, and this year we’ve had the opportunity to witness yet another wonderful example for its truthfulness. It was during the second heat of the 5000m when Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand tripped on the inner perimeter of the track and fell down. D’Agostino, running directly behind her, couldn’t avoid a collision and tripped as well. The American was the first to get up, but instead of continuing the race, she went over to her opponent and tried to get her to stand up as well and finish the race together with her. After a few seconds Hamblin did so and they began to slowly pick up speed again when D’Agostino felt a cruciating pain in her leg. This time it was Hamblin who would have nothing of it. She waited for D’Agostino, encouraged her to move on and for a while put her arm around her to get her to finish the race as well. Both of them were in pain, with the American being seriously injured, but in the end they both did finish the race. The New Zealander waited for her colleague at the finish line and she was the first to embrace her…
In an unusual display of compassion by IAAF officials, both D’Agostino and Hamblin were advanced to the final, although the American couldn’t start there due to her injuries (a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus), and a few days later it was announced that they had been awarded the Rio 2016 Fair Play Award.

David Katoatau (KIR) – Weightlifting

Weightlifting was once again marred by controversy, with the Russian, Bulgarian and Azerbaijani teams being excluded for an excessively high amount of Doping cases in recent years, while countries like Kazakhstan, Belarus and Turkey could not be banned because the IOC delayed proceedings until after the Games.
But one weightlifter from the pacific island nation of Kiribati stood out. Not so much for his physical strength, which is considerable (two years ago he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games) but still quite far from medal contention, but for his attitude. Every time he left the stage after an attempt, no matter if it was successful or not, Kataotau broke out into a little dance, smiling all along, even after he had failed his last attempt. He seemingly spread so much happiness to everybody in the arena but had a very clear and very serious purpose in his mind, as he said later during an interview. He wanted to draw attention not to him but to his country. Kiribati’s very existence is threatened by rising sea levels, caused by climate change. Within a few decades, the islands could have just disappeared entirely into the ocean unless immediate action is taken by political leaders and economies world wide. Climate change had already played a significant role during the Opening Ceremony, although some have accused the organizers of hypocrisy, citing a wide variety of  negative examples surrounding the organization of these Games. But Kataotau’s message came from his heart, and I hope it has found its way into the hearts of many others.

Olympic Channel – Katoatau fails his last weightlifting attempt… (YouTube)

Pernille Blume (DEN) – Swimming

In the 50m freestyle, a lot can happen. Most races are so close that it’s hard to tell with the naked eye who’s leading and predict, even half-way through, who will win. Pernille Blume started the race in lane 4, which is reserved for the athlete setting the fastest time in the semifinals. This was already an indication of her potential and speed, but still it was quite a surprise that she managed to hold up and swim all the way to the gold. The person probably most surprised by that result was herself. Upon reading her name on the top of the scoreboard, Pernille Blume let out a brief scream of joy, before re-reading the results over and over again and looking around for somebody to wake her up from that dream. As her colleagues congratulated her, she was visibly trying to get all her thoughts sorted somehow, so much that she even didn’t remember where to get out of the pool at first. By the time of her medal ceremony, Blume’s disbelief had been replaced with a broad smile, not the self-confident smile of someone who had grown accustomed to ceremonies like that over the years, but of a young and extremely talented swimmer from a rather small nation who had just thrusted herself into the spotlight and felt more at home there with every minute passing. When they played the song of that “lovely land…near salty eastern shore”, tears were slowly running down her cheeks.

Cheick Salla Cissé (CIV) – Taekwondo

Remember that fencing bout between Britta Heidemann and the Korean Shin A-lam in London? (if not: take a look here (YouTube)) Since then we know just how much can happen in combat sports within one second. The latest athlete who had to learn that lesson is Lutalo Muhammad of Great Britain. The final Taekwondo bout with his opponent Cheick Salla Cissé of Côte d’Ivoire was tied at four points each, going into the last minute, when Muhammad managed to land a kick on Cissé’s chest, forcing him to step from the mat for which he received a second kyong-go warning. Another point for the British taekwondoka who now held a two point lead. Only a kick to the head would be enough to turn the entire fight around with a single action. Both of them knew that and Muhammad successfully blocked all attempts. All but one… Mere split seconds before the end of the fight, Cissé’s right foot somehow landed on Muhammad’s head protector. It was Cisse himself who was initially the only one to realise that he had indeed been awarded the three points he needed. That he had won his country’s first ever gold medal at the Olympics. While the British side was left behind speechless, he jumped from the fighting area, passing his stunned coach who still held up a blue card, demanding a, now unnecessary, video replay, completed several victory laps around the arena and celebrated with his fans whose number had constantly grown during the day, thanks to his performances. Cissé later stated that he had won not only for his country but for all of Africa, and that he wanted to inspire the youth, especially in the sub-saharan part of the continent, to take up sports like his.

Oksana Chusovitina (UZB) – Artistic Gymnastics

Since the 1970s and the days of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, women’s artistic gymnastics seemed to be dominated by very small and very young girls, so small and so young that the International Gymnastics Federation had to both introduce and enforce an age limit, with entire teams being disqualified, more than once, for including gymnasts who were below the required minimum age. While this trend, which had reached a quite alarming level in the late 80s and early 90s, may have slowed down a bit in recent years (although some of this year’s participants seem to have returned to it…), it is still a remarkable thing to see a real grand dame of gymnastics, perform at the top level. Oksana Chusovitina fits into that description. She began competing on the international level in, believe or not, 1989. The country she started for was the Soviet Union, something all the other competitors this year only know from history lessons, TV documentaries or Wikipedia. In 1992 she participated in the Barcelona Olympics, starting for the “Unified Team” which consisted of most of the former Soviet republics. Chusovitina won the gold medal in the team all-around event. After gaining independence, the former Soviet republics sent their own delegations to subsequent Games, with Chusovitina now in Uzbekistan’s team. She went to Atlanta and Sydney, before something more important drew all of her attention and energy. Her son, only three years old at that time, had been diagnosed with leukemia. It was clear that the medical facilities in her home country could not offer the advanced medical treatment necessary, so she went to Germany after being offered help from a pair of German coaches. To be able to pay the hospital bills for her son, Chusovitina took up her sport again and used her prize money for hardly anything else. Although the NOCs of both Uzbekistan and Germany had no objection against her changing affiliation, it took a while for her to get through the process of gaining the German citizenship. So she competed for Uzbekistan again in 2004, before switching to the German team for the Games of Beijing and London. In Beijing she won the silver medal in the vault, already aged 33, the first medal for a female German gymnast since reunification.
And now, at 41, Chusovitina, starting for Uzbekistan again, participated in her seventh consecutive Olympic Games. Not only that, she qualified for the final on her favourite apparatus yet again where she reached an impressive seventh place.

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