Not everyone’s a winner. The three stories I share today are evidence of that. They all came gloriously and spectacularly last. But they have one much more important factor in common. They each embody the spirit of the Olympics: an athlete wanting to compete at the highest level possible, to the best of their ability, with participation being more important than winning.
CALGARY 1988, SYDNEY 2000: WHEN JUST ‘BEING THERE’ IS A VICTORY IN ITSELF
Jamaican Bobsleigh Team
Being tropical, there are two seasons in Jamaica: the wet season when it rains from May to October, and the dry season when it doesn’t. The average year-round temperature is between 25 and 30 degrees. There is no snow. Ever.
That is why the improbable story of the Jamaican Bobsleigh team was so good they had to make a film of it – even though much of the film is more fiction than fact.
However, what is true is that two pushcart enthusiasts persuaded the Jamaican Olympic Association to enter the bobsligh competition. The Olympic Association agreed and, in turn, persuaded the Army to give them the manpower for the team. While there were funds to hire coaches from the US and Austria, there wasn’t much else.
The team didn’t even see a bobsled until September 1987, and that was borrowed. Five months later, they were competing in the Calgary Olympics. One team member was drafted into the team three days before the event, because an original member slipped on the ice and was injured. The Olympic race was the first time the four-man sled team had taken part in a race; before then, they had four practice runs.
Team members say that, contrary to the film, they were not outcasts at the Olympics but were mobbed by fans and media – so much so they couldn’t leave the Olympic Village. Their participation brought 40,000 fans to the track, compared with the normal 5,000. Other competitors would stop and give them tips, and would have their photograph taken with them.
When it came to the competition, it wasn’t quite a fairytale ending either. The sled crashed.
One-by-one, the team members let themselves out of the sled, dusted themselves off, and pushed the sled over the line. As they did so, members of the public cheered and cried out: ‘We love you!’
Since that first time, Jamaica has had a team in the bobsleigh competition on five other occasions, the most recent being Sochi 2014.
‘Eddie the Eagle’
Another story so good, they made a film of it – again, not necessarily consistent with what really happened.
‘Eddie the Eagle’ is Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards, a British ski jumper who became Great Britain’s first competitor in the Olympics ski jump competition since 1929 when he took part in Calgary 1988.
Edwards lifelong ambition was to take part in the Olympics. He was a good downhill skier who narrowly missed the British team for the 1984 Winter Olympics. At age 21, and realising that he might not improve sufficiently to make the next winter games, pragmatism took hold and he decided to switch to ski jumping.
The advantage was that there was no-one to beat for qualification as no other Briton was doing it!
However, Edwards had several disadvantages. He was totally self-funded. He trained using borrowed equipment, which required him to wear six pairs of socks in order for the boots to fit. He was thicker set than most other ski-jumpers, weighing about 9kg more than the next heaviest competitor. And he wore thick glasses under the goggles that would mist-up at altitude.
Edwards worked at whatever he could do and lived as cheaply as possible while saving money to achieve his Olympic dream. He found out he had qualified while working as a plasterer and living in a Finnish mental hospital – the latter not because he was a patient, but because it was inexpensive accommodation.
Just as with the Jamaican Bobsleigh team, Edwards became one of the hits of the Calgary Olympics.
The Italian team gave him a helmet and the Austrians, skis. He knew he couldn’t get anywhere near the winners’ podium. He just wanted to be part of it, telling the media:
“In my case, there are only two kinds of hope – Bob Hope and no hope.”
Eddie the Eagle lived up to his own expectations! He came stone motherless last in both the 70m and 90m events. The competitors who came second last in each event scored double what Edwards’ managed. Others literally flew through the air; Edwards tended to drop.
By the following Winter Olympics, the entry requirements were strengthened so there could never be another Eddie the Eagle.
Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea on Africa’s west coast (population 750,000) had only taken up swimming when he left school. Prior to taking part in the first heat of the men’s 100m freestyle at the brand-spanking new Sydney Aquatic Centre, he had never swum in a pool longer than 13m.
Moussambani was one of three ‘wild card’ entries into the games, permitted by the IOC as a way of encouraging young athletes from developing nations. There were no qualifying standards for wild card entrants to meet.
He swam his heat alone. The other two wild card entrants both had a false start and were disqualified.
That would be difficult enough for any swimmer.
But before this heat, the longest Moussambani had ever swum was 50m.
What followed was the world’s slowest 100m at a modern Olympics.
The lad had a good physique, but he had no style to speak of. His head was too high in the water; there was no forward reach in his arms; he pulled his arms out of the water too soon; and his kick seemed to increase his resistance rather than propel him forward. I’m no swimming expert, but these are just the things I notice.
We can’t possibly know what it must have been like for a young lad from Equatorial Guinea to be in one of the most modern cities in the world more than five times larger than his entire country, surrounded by first-class Olympic facilities, with a swimming-obssessed Aussie capacity crowd in the stands. We can only imagine.
But what the crowd loved was the fact that Eric was trying his heart out. It didn’t matter how long he took.
About 20m from the finish, he appeared to stall. Commentators wondered whether he would make it, or whether someone would need to jump in and get him.
The crowd cheered him on even more. Eric continued.
It took Moussambani 1m52.72s, more than double the winning time of the 100m that year, and slower than the 200m winning time (both won by Dutchman Pieter Van Den Hoogenband).
It didn’t matter. Moussambani broke the Equatorial Guinea natinal record and swam his personal best – and first – 100m. He told reporters immediately after the swim that he was feeling happy and:
“I am going to jump and dance all night long in celebration of my personal triumph.”
And who could deny him that?