God pity them both! and pity us all,from “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
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 excel 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.
The following August 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.
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, more skirmishing put Germany’s Brigitte Kraus on the turf; four runners down in all, two DNFs. Decker later claimed in a press conference that Budd tripped her, but eventually 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.
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 100m but the 100m 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 come off the barrier 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 because of a fall; just not fast enough. She qualified in Sydney 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 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
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 races 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.