D is for DNF (Did Not Finish)

Liu Xiang London Olympics
Liu Xiang, gold medalist from Athens, eyes the hurdles in London 2012 after injuring his Achilles. Photo in The Independent.

God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

from “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Liu Xiang had arranged his life perfectly. Lithe and unusually tall, his long legs and loping strides seemed perfectly built for a hurdler. Winning races as a teenager, the world took notice, especially since it was rare to see a Chinese athlete winning sprints. Diving, sure.; gymnastics, definitely; table tennis, weightlifting, shooting, badminton, the Chinese excelled at many sports. But not the fast races. Until 2004, when Liu Xiang won the first track and field medal for China. He surprised everyone in Athens winning a gold medal, tying the world record, and setting an Olympic record. Perfect timing, since the next Olympics would be at home.

On August 18, 2008, in front of an enthusiastic Beijing crowd, with a billion hopes sitting on his shoulders and cameras following his every move, Liu Xiang stood in the blocks. As the gun sounded, and another runner false started, Liu suddenly clutched his leg. His uncooperative Achilles tendon had decided it was not his day. The wikipedia page for the 110 meter hurdles in Beijing lists him twice, once for his 12.91 2004 Olympic record–which still stands to this day–and the other to his regret–DNF.

Of all the toughest line items in the Olympic box score, DNF may be the one that hurts the most. Some say fourth place is worst, just out of the medals. DQ is pretty painful, in disciplines like the discus or long jump, where stepping over the line means the end of medal dreams. But DNF means that after the years of struggle to get good at your discipline, rise to be the best in your school, your region, your country, and training to get onto the Olympic track or arena, after all that, you couldn’t finish. There may be no bigger heartbreak in sport.

For Some Olympians, Always a What-If

Many of the might-have-beens seem carved in stone. How many remember Los Angeles 1984 and the infamous incident in the women’s 3000-meter race? For Mary Decker Slaney, it was to be a triumph at the end of her long struggle. A few months’ too young to compete in Munich 1972, she had been winning races since age 14. But injury kept her out of Montreal 1976, and the boycott put Moscow 1980 out of reach. In 1982 and 1983, though, she was literally hitting her stride by setting world records in the 1500 and 3000 meters, eyes on the next Olympics. Like Liu Xiang before her, the next competition would be home in Los Angeles 1984, half an hour from where Decker grew up.

Another young phenom, Zola Budd, had begun setting world records, too. Because Budd was from South Africa, banned from the Games due to its apartheid policy, Budd had shifted to run for Great Britain. She ran barefoot. She was 17. More attention; more hype. The finals for the 3000 meters was billed as the ultimate battle between the two women. It became one of the most famous DNFs in Olympic history.

Mary Decker falls in the 3000 meters, Los Angeles 1984. Photo from the Bettman Archives.

Decker was so fast that when she raced in the U.S., there was rarely anyone around her. She was not used to running in a pack. Budd was also inexperienced. She had moved into the lead after three laps, with Decker and others lining up behind her. Then, Decker stepped on Budd’s foot. Budd stumbled and threw her leg out, tripping Decker who crashed headfirst onto the field, injuring her hip. Later in the race, there’s more skirmishing as Germany’s Brigitte Kraus also fell; four runners down in all, two DNFs. Decker claimed in a press conference that Budd tripped her, but later admitted it was probably unintentional. Budd was disqualified, although when the tape was reviewed, the officials decided Decker as the trailing runner was supposed to give space that she did not give. Decker wasn’t used to running from behind.

In 1988, Decker qualified for Seoul, but her performances didn’t come close to a medal, and she didn’t qualify for Barcelona either. She set her sites at home for Atlanta 1996 but ended up failing a drug test, caused possibly because the test could not distinguish between birth control pills and illicit hormones. Her record for the 1500 meters stood for 32 years, and her 4:16 for the mile is still the U.S. best and eighth best in the world. Yet, her name will forever be married to the DNF.

For Hurdlers, There’s Always Risk

Gail Devers is probably also remembered for what she didn’t do, rather than for what she did. She did win three gold medals and the title of Fastest Woman on Earth, twice, winning the 100 meters in both Barcelona and Atlanta, both by photo finish. Still, many forget the three successes. What is remembered is the fall.

Gail Devers stumbles in Barcelona 2002. Photo at the Olympic Channel.

Hurdling, by definition, is fraught with danger. Those innocuous looking barriers are 3.5 feet high. Most of us would need a stepladder to traverse them, let alone doing it at 15 miles an hour. In London 2012, 20% of the hurdlers in the men’s race never finished. Yet at the Olympic level, those athletes practice technique to avoid taking a misstep. They know what they’re doing. It doesn’t always help.

Devers was a specialist at the hurdles with five world championship medals to her credit. In Barcelona, she had already edged out Jamaica’s Juliet Cuthbert in the 100 but hurdles was her specialty. From the start, she took a smooth pace, leading the pack but pulling away, finishing the final hurdle and about to win to earn her second gold medal, when… an invisible hurdle came out of nowhere. She hadn’t quite hit the last hurdle correctly and stumbled right before the tape, sprawling to a fifth place.

She returned to Atlanta, again winning the 100 meters, but again missed the medals in the hurdles. Not for a fall; just not fast enough. She qualified in 2000 but had to pull out before the semis; she made it to Athens, but, again, DNF. Five Olympics, three gold medals, but Devers still remembers the one that got away.

Sometimes a Crash, Sometimes a Sacrifice

Certainly not all DNFs are in track and field. In winter, DNFs are plentiful in the ski races, between the death-defying downhills and grueling 500 mile cross country races. Oh, it’s only 50 kilometers? Ten percent of those racers never finish. In summer, the other event which stacks up the list of might-have-beens is the Cycling Road Race. A DNF here, though, might reflect team strategy or something worse.

The Rio 2016 cycling course through Vista Chinesa was considered to be one of the most scenic and grueling ever devised. It was also one of the most dangerous. Annemiek van Vleuten, part of a multi-medal winning Dutch powerhouse group of cyclists, was in the lead diving around the twists and turns. She had broken away from the pack, chased by USA’s Mara Abbott, but was flying around the mountain to put distance between her and the rest. What’s the word? Breakneck speed?

Van Vleuten crashes in the 2016 Women’s Cycling Road Race. Photo at Hollywood Mirror.

Van Vleuten miscalculated a turn, hit the embankment on a curve and went flying off her bike. The spectacular crash brought an ambulance; she ended up with multiple lumbar spine fractures and a concussion. Fortunately, she recovered enough to race again and win again another year, taking a World championship just last year. Kind of makes the hurdles look pretty tame.

Mara Abbott’s hopes were raised, in part, due to a teammate’s DNF. In the road race, it’s crucial for athletes to work together. Cyclists draft off each other, as the person in front shares the brunt of the work, shielding those behind from the wind. They’re supposed to take turns, though not everyone cooperates. Kristin Armstrong, another U.S. cyclist, had led for a chunk of the way in Rio, setting a pace to benefit her hill-loving teammate. Armstrong on camera was seen in front for nearly ten minutes, exhorting others in the peloton to take their turn at the lead, as the group chased down an early breakaway pack. Thanks to Armstrong, the peloton got there eventually, allowing Abbott, van Vleuten, and others to make a move. Armstrong dropped out, having done her best.

As it turned out, Abbott took the hills a little too conservatively. Although she emerged unscathed from the treacherous Vista Chinesa, so did a pack of three who slowly ate up her lead. Had she and van Vleuten been able to share at the end, she might have fared better. Instead, she missed a medal by a whisper as the pack zipped by her in the last ten meters. Still, she thanked her roommate Armstrong and wished her well, as Armstrong herself went on to win a record third medal in the cycling time trials three days later. Not all DNFs lead only to heartbreak.

And Sometimes A DNF Still Becomes Legend

London 2012 hurdlers
Xiang helped by fellow hurdlers after injuring his Achilles in London. Photo by The Guardian.

But what of Liu Xiang? In London 2012, Xiang was still at the top of his game. Even though it wasn’t at home, he was ready to try for another medal. In the first heat, as he accelerated towards the first hurdle, Xiang’s Achilles again rebelled, and he crashed into the first hurdle. He limped off the track, but seconds later, came hopping back. With the other racers gone, he hopped down the track, kissing the final hurdle and hobbling across the finish. Andy Turner of Great Britain and Jackson Quinonez of Spain went after their comrade and helped him over to a wheelchair. The picture is now more famous than the names of the eventual winners.

Turner came first in his heat but didn’t pass through to the semis. Quinonez didn’t make it to the next round, despite running his seasonal best. None of them ended as medalists, after all they had done to make it on to the Olympic stage. In that sense, does it matter so much whether one finishes and the other doesn’t? Technically, Liu Xiang was a DNF, since hopping between hurdles and over the finish line doesn’t count in an Olympic race. Realistically, though, wouldn’t you say he did finish?

Today and tonight, as you are thinking about all the might-have-beens from these Olympic racs or even about what you have not done in the past few weeks, what you might have done under different circumstances, before the world shifted so jarringly to where you are today, think about what it would take to get up and requalify after you fell the first time. What would it take for you to keep going at life, whether you raced again or did not. As a close friend used to say:

Life is all about the grace with which you accept Plan B.

James Sherman

After all, all of these racers, medalists or not, were still Olympians.

C is for de Coubertin*

Why is the Olympic ideal so pervasive? The Games themselves have, practically from the beginning, been fraught with controversy: politics, scandals, poor sportsmanship, cost overruns. Every journalist seems to find something to criticize or yawns at the competitions, calling them bloated or lackluster. Every pundit declares that this time, because of all the fighting between countries and cost overruns, the Olympics are really dead. Consider this summation written by John Robert Tunis:

That the Olympics are … productive of keen competition, new records, immense crowds, profitable weeks for the hotel-keepers and shop-owners of the city in which they are held… But that they have succeeded in becoming a beneficial force in the spreading of peace and good will throughout the world… is not so certain. For, as Mr. George Trevor of the New York Sun said recently…: “The history of the Olympic Games since their arrival in 1896 has been marked by sporadic dissension, bickering, heartburning, and one or two old-fashioned rows.”

John Robert Tunis, Harper’s, August 1928.

And that was back in 1928. Still, the Olympics endure.

The reason that this athletic tournament has lasted for over a hundred years is not because of the sporting achievements, not because countries crow over piles of medals, and not even because they embody tremendous entertainment for the viewing public. The Olympic ideal has lasted because of the dude who pulled together all the fractious national egos to reinstate the modern Games in the first place: Pierre de Coubertin.

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B is for Badminton

England’s Sam Parsons perfecting the through-the-legs badminton shot. Still photo from this highly-recommended Youtube medley of amazing badminton shots.

At some point, most of us have played badminton in some form, likely as children, batting the shuttlecock over the net, into the net, or into a tree. That stately version, like most games that are pastimes rather than sports, bears little resemblance to the speedy free-for-all that is Olympic badminton.

As the second choice in my A to Z challenge, my 26 days of blogging about the Olympics, I openly warn you, gentle reader, that I prefer to look towards the “little sports.” Too much of American Olympic conversation centers on the big six–basketball, swimming, gymnastics, diving, sprints, and beach volleyball. While I won’t ignore those topics entirely, you should not expect to see a post about the Dream Team or the Perfect Ten.

Instead let us turn our attention to things we know less about–canoeing perhaps, keirin, field hockey, epee… oh, here we go… BADMINTON.

A to Z challenge, day 2

The English Sport that Probably Came from Asia

If your history of badminton only has one sentence, it probably says: Badminton was invented in 1873 when the duke of Beaufort introduced the game at his country estate in Badminton. Credit is always given to the wealthy and prominent. I’ve always found it hard to believe that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was really the first person who thought to put meat between pieces of bread. That was fiction.

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A is for Archery

Justin Huish, gold medal Archery 1996
Justin Huish won gold in Individual and Team Archery, Atlanta 1996. Photo by Getty Images.

I am missing my sports! Plus, I have no desire to write about the C word (you know, C-19, which is an unlucky number anyway.)

So I came across this A to Z Challenge–just today! looking for inspiration. It’s always amazing to stumble upon these entire segments of the writing community. Everybody seemed to know about this already, since there were 400+ bloggers signed up. A 26-day challenge will be a great way to spend the next few weeks, when we all have to stay inside anyway.

I am coming late to the party, so forgive me if I don’t follow guidelines. I gather that I’m supposed to publish every day and use letters of the alphabet. The obvious next question is what kind of theme would make sense for me? If you’ve read some of my stuff or know me, you might think…. something historical, obscure math problems, Shakespeare (I considered that, though there weren’t any X’s or Z’s… maybe next year), chocolate, curious science… but then, of course, it was OBVIOUS!

The Olympics! It’s my passion; I wrote a book about ’em. I had blocked Tokyo 2020 off on my calendar and was counting the days until rumors began rumbling about postponement, which of course was necessary. Can’t practice if you can’t even go outside. Still, I was in a funk for a week. However, now I can count down until July 23, 2021 instead. Meanwhile… A is obviously for Archery… so here are a few interesting tidbits to start off the month.

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Mom Always Said Wash Your Hands

Today is a perfect time to honor our healthcare professionals, celebrate international women’s month, and remind you to lather up. Consider it a threefer. All hail to midwives, nurses, and mom.

Poster from Foodsafetynews.com. October 15, 2016 was Global Handwashing Day, though we might have missed that.

Aqueducts and Aquamaniles APlenty

Contrary to some beliefs, bathing and hand-washing is not a historically recent phenomenon, but was a practice widely dispersed across many cultures for centuries. The Romans, Greeks, Mesoamericans, and Japanese all incorporated bathing into their daily routines. Even into the Dark Ages, where food was eaten mainly with the hands, it was customary to rinse off before dining. Special ewers were provided for noble feasters, but even commoners might prepare a hand-washing solution with herbs, like making tea.

Pour faire eaue a laver mains sur table mectez boulir de la sauge, puis coulez l’eaue et faictes reffroidier jusques a plus que tiedes. Ou vous mectez comme dessus camomille et marjolaine, ou vous mectez du rommarin, et cuire avec l’escorche d’orenge. Et aussi feuilles de lorier y sont bonnes.

To make water for washing hands at the table. Boil sage, strain the water and let cool to a little more than tepid. Or take camomille and marjoram in stead [of sage], or rosemary, and boil with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.

From Coquinaria, A Recipe for Washing Hands
A medieval aquamanile, for rinsing hands before dinner. Photo at Coquanilia.
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