Better Than Gold

We’re Olympic crazy at my house. The DVR is in full use. My 19 year old could not be pried away from the Archery competition. It’s a family tradition. And though my own athletic experience peaked as a high school cheerleader, the rest of the family has a more personal relationship with wins,losses’ and scoring for the team. Still I have a favorite Olympic moment.
In 1984 my husband, two close friends and I attended the Summer Games of Los Angeles. That experience was so good that I encourage anyone to go to an Olympic games if at all possible. During the days and nights of events I saw preliminary competitions as well as finals and medal ceremonies. The venues themselves were artfully landscaped  and decorated. The volunteers friendly as they practically chased down spectators to hand out sunscreen. From rowing to boxing, swimming to basketball, every event was exciting, every day was memorable.
But the event, the ticket we were so excited to have was the day pass to  track and field at the LA  Coliseum. It was the event that might just make track and field history. Carl Lewis might break the World and Olympic record in the long jump.  A record set many years before and thought  to be possibly never broken, except maybe at this Olympics. It was hot, after all it was southern California in the summer. And as we sat down in the upper section of the historic stadium that morning we anticipated  seeing great athletes and athletics.
If you have never been to a track meet you may not know that it is something of a three ring circus. Runners may be racing around the track while at the same time field events are underway at either end, or in the center of the the oval. That day a Brazilian won the men’s 800 meter and two American women won  two races. But it is safe to say that most of the more than 100 thousand people in the stadium were most looking forward to the men’s long jump.
As the late afternoon wound down ,discus preliminaries were taking place in the oval, and on the track the first of two heats in the men’s 3000 steeplechase began.  The steeplechase is a long distance race broken up by the runners jumping over not just hurdles but hazards of water. It’s a long race, multiple laps taking over 8 minutes in 1984. There were 12 runners in the heat, there would be two heats and the the fastest times   would seat 12 runners out of the field of 24. By 6:30 that evening most of the spectators were planning where to have dinner after leaving the early session before  returning  for the long jump finals. I myself was chatting with a family from Australia. I glanced up periodically to watch the runners circle the track, jump the hazard. As  the race  progressed  the field separated, the fastest runners distancing themselves from the rest of the field. Then, as the race continued I noticed the runner in last place. He was just not last in the field of 12, but was in danger of being lapped. Not only I noticed this. My new friend from down under agreed with my assessment. And eerily the stadium was filled with the whispering of thousands. “Poor kid, how embarrassing to be lapped at the Olympics.” The multi -language whispering was unlike anything else I had heard then or since.
The runner was from Kenya. Who knows how he trained to come to those Olympics. What was his life like before he got on a plane  and traveled so far to compete in the Olympics?  I am sure that being last in his heat and possibly lapped was not in any of his Olympic dreams.
We all sat, silent now, as the heat leader lapped the the Kenyan. The  other runners ran. And then the leader finished the race. The runners ran. And then one by one 10 athletes crossed the finish line. Now in the waning afternoon sun there was only the Kenyan, running by himself. The field athletes had already exited the stadium. The volunteers were packing up the measuring tapes from the  discus, cleaning up the oval. And the Kenyan. ran. Finally,his tortuous race came to an end, he approached the finish line. He crossed the line. No chance for a Gold or a medal of any kind. And as he ran across the finish line, as if on cue 120 thousand people stood and cheered. It may not have been a World Record run, but it remains my favorite Olympic memory, a runner from half a world away and a stadium full of spectators , together realizing  what the Olympics can truly be. I’m just say’n.

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