The Heart of the Games

by | Aug 3, 2008 | Parade Magazine | 0 comments

If you want to find the best stories at the Olympics, look in the corners, away from the spotlight. For me, in covering the Olympics over the last 24 years, the lesser-lit places have been where the most memorable moments took place.

Sure, TV always hypes the favorites. We are already being bombarded with big-name expectations in Beijing, such as swimming star Michael Phelps or basketball’s Kobe Bryant. But, personally, I soured on big-name stuff back in Barcelona in 1992, after the Dream Team’s Michael Jordan, who earned millions endorsing Nike, refused to get on the medal stand if he had to wear a Reebok sweatsuit.

“They can mail me the medal,” he told the press.

Check, please.

Thankfully, those same Olympics provided me with maybe the best sports moment I’ve ever covered—a much less-hyped one. And that taught me one of several lessons about where to seek the heart and soul of the Games: Look to the losers.

The story I refer to happened one afternoon far from the Dream Team hysteria, in Barcelona’s Olympic stadium, when a British sprinter named Derek Redmond pulled a hamstring midway through a 400-meter heat. He fell to the track as if he’d been shot. His Olympics were over.

But his moment had just begun.

As Derek waved off the medics and tried to hop to the finish, his father, Jim Redmond, a heavyset machine-shop owner, burst from the stands and ran onto the track. He somehow reached his son, who buried his head in his father’s shoulder to hide his tears. Then the two of them, the father supporting the son, inched their way to the finish line so that Derek could say he finished the race. The crowd rose for the slow-hobbling men and roared as loudly as it would for any champion.

Later, Jim Redmond was asked how he made it onto the track.

“You don’t need accreditation in an emergency,” the father said.

Since most Olympians have trained a lifetime for a single moment, defeat can tell as rich a story as victory. In 1988, at the Seoul Games, American boxer Anthony Hembrick sat stunned, crying, a sweatshirt hood over his head, after learning that his coach had read the schedule wrong, they’d missed the bus and arrived too late for his first bout. The coaches tried to tape him up quickly. They tried to argue. No luck. A forfeit was declared. Hembrick’s Olympics were over before he threw a punch.

How about runner Mary Decker Slaney, who missed the 1976 Games due to injury, the 1980 Games due to boycott, and who finally, in 1984 in Los Angeles, was a gold-medal favorite competing before her home crowd in the 3000 meters? Just past the halfway mark, she got tangled with a barefoot, teenage British runner named Zola Budd and tumbled to the infield, grabbing her thigh and bursting into tears. Her dream was shattered. Four years later, in Seoul, Slaney tried the same race again and got brushed and stumbled and lost. Dream over, again. One of our greatest female distance runners ever. Yet defeat, sadly, was the star of her Olympic story.

Defeat meant something different to a young marathoner named Aguida Amaral, from war-torn East Timor, where violence left her home burned and her running shoes ruined. In Sydney in 2000, she had to compete in a plain white jersey under the Olympic flag. Near the end of the 26-mile race, despite being more than 47 minutes behind the winner, she was so grateful to have made it that, after running into the stadium, she dropped to her knees in prayer. An official gently informed her that she still had to circle the track to finish, so she rose to cheers and did so, then kissed the ground.

By the way, Amaral finished second from last, proving that the best stories are often far from the medal stand.

They are also far from the well-known arenas of gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. For example, in 1988, during a sailing competition, a Canadian named Lawrence Lemieux was in second place in a race when he spotted two sailors from Singapore who’d been thrown into the water by the rough winds and waves. He veered off course, pulled them onto his boat and waited for rescuers. It cost him any chance of winning. But it gave new meaning to Olympic sportsmanship.

In 1996, badminton gave us Kevin Han, who left a prestigious athletic status in China to be with his divorced father in New York City. Han worked in a Chinese restaurant and as a bicycle delivery boy, getting banged by cars and even mugged once before finally, 18 months later, finding his way back to the net. He eventually became a U.S. citizen and competed in the Atlanta Games. I asked him what he cherished most about being an American, and he said, “Freedom.”

When did badminton get so inspiring?

In Sydney, the rarely seen sport of Greco-Roman wrestling offered the magical tale of a beefy Wyoming dairy farmer named Rulon Gardner, who had never finished higher than fifth in a world championship. He was pitted, in the gold-medal match, against a Russian legend named Aleksandr Karelin, “The Siberian Bear,” who hadn’t lost a match in 13 years. Thirteen years? Gardner somehow scored the first point on him and held Karelin off for what felt like forever. Finally, with eight seconds left, the mighty Russian dropped his hands in surrender. Gardner took the gold and became an American icon—from Greco-Roman wrestling.

Who says that you need to understand a sport to find a hero?

In the Beijing Games, we’ll see many inspiring photos. But remember, sometimes a snapshot tells an entire story; sometimes it is only a keyhole. In 1988, there was the picture of South Korean boxer Byun Jong-Il, sitting alone in an empty ring after they turned the lights out. The full story was a controversial decision an hour earlier that led to bottles and chairs being thrown, and to Korean boxing officials attacking a referee in a melee.

There was also a photo of Soviet gymnast Dmitri Bilozerchev, at those same Seoul Games, wearing a bronze medal. The full story was that doctors had never expected him to walk again after he’d shattered his leg in 40 places in a drunk-driving incident.

There was the image of a Nigerian woman named Glory Alozie, flying over the hurdles in the Sydney Games en route to a silver medal. What the picture didn’t show was the heavy heart she carried over those hurdles, having lost the love of her life—her sprinter fiancé, Hyginus Anugo—just a few weeks earlier in that same city, after he was killed by a speeding car while running to get snacks for his teammates.

So the Olympics are this massive, colorful tapestry. And simple math tells us there will be more than 10,000 athletes competing in Beijing, and relatively few of them will make it to your TV screen. But every Olympian has an Olympic story. Sometimes they end on a medal stand. And sometimes you have to look a bit harder to find gold. Trust me. It is well worth the search.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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