“I think everyone here knows what you have to do to get here. And so for her to come here, not only trip but seems like actually quite seriously hurt herself… that sucks. It sucks so bad. “ – Nikki Hamblin, talking about Abbey D’Agostino
“Olympian” is a word that still reverberates with ancient echoes of Greek mythology. Said with the proper sense of awe, it still holds the suggestion that today’s Olympic athletes, especially those competing in the more traditional disciplines, might really be the gods and heroes of our time. To be an Olympian is to be, always and forever, a member of an elite class that dwells among the clouds, while the rest of us admire from the plains.
Or so it seems when we behold the titanic races of repeat champions Usain Bolt or David Rudisha, or take in the astonishing records of Almaz Ayana and Wayde van Niekerk, or appreciate the greatness on final display from legends like Allyson Felix and Tirunesh Dibaba. The point is that unless you have completely given up on the sport, there is an awe and wonder at watching these immortals compete.
And yet, the Olympics also creates moments in which the word “Olympian” dissolves into something entirely different. In those moments, it is only the stage that is immense; at least some of the athletes, it turns out, are human like us.
By the time this appears, it will have been over 24 hours since the heats of the 5000m, and surely by now Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin are well on their way to a different kind of Olympic glory. Running in the first event of the morning with a little less than 2k to go, it appeared that D’Agostino clipped the heel of Hamblin, who went down, taking D’Agostino with her. Despite having twisted her ankle and knee badly in the fall, D’Agostino recovered first, but as the pack sped away, she did not follow immediately, but instead attempted to lift Hamblin up, urging her to continue. Hamblin did get up, and both women took a few steps before it became clear that D’Agostino was limping badly. She collapsed to the track again, and this time Hamblin paused to offer encouragement.
By now, the possibility of earning a spot in the final was gone, but both women continued to run, with D’Agostino limping painfully through the final five laps, before being taken away in a wheelchair.
It didn’t take long for the events of the race to take on a significance far beyond a simple mishap in a qualifying heat. D’Agostino’s actions in stopping and attempting to help Hamblin, and then Hamblin’s effort to return the gesture, struck a chord with many who felt the incident represented the true Olympic spirit and demonstrated sportsmanship at its finest. After a day, the one-minute highlight video showing the incident had been viewed half a million times. There will surely be a version with narrative titles and inspirational music soon.
I, too, was moved by this. What runner would not choke up thinking about how, in that moment when the shock, pain, and sheer disappointment of the fall must have risen up and threatened to drown out everything else, both women exhibited a common, and yet unexpected decency. I tried to imagine what that moment must have felt like. It all happened too fast for D’Agostino to think about what she was doing. I doubt that she thought she was being a hero or an inspiration or a model of sportsmanship. I suspect, instead, she was just following her first instinct — an instinct that recognized that when someone falls, and you’re right there next to them, you try to help them up. I can only speculate on how, over a lifetime, she developed that instinct, and why it wasn’t overridden by the runner’s imperative to reach the finish line as quickly as possible.
Suspicious of my own emotional response, I also tried to keep reminding myself that D’Agostino and Hamblin probably weren’t “inspired” by the events that were now being shared and lauded around the world. As Hamblin said, it sucked. Both athletes had worked very hard and very long to make it to the starting line of that race, and being involved in a disastrous accident to become an example of sportsmanship was not in their plans. It’s great for us to have that example, but it’s not necessarily great for the athletes involved. Maybe it’s even embarrassing for them. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that the what transpired on the track happened at a human scale, not a divine scale. It is in the nature of human beings to fall and to fail, and our common story is about what happens next. It’s pretty common to see falls followed by anger, disappointment, or even recriminations. It’s not unusual to watch an athlete screaming out words that might be summed up as a “why me?” directed to the heavens. And I don’t blame anyone for that response. It must be excruciating to make it so far, and then stumble (or be tripped) on the final approach to the summit.
But every once in a while, an athlete handles it well, and it almost shames us because we realize that you don’t have to be an Olympian or an immortal to find yourself in the same situation. And then we have to ask ourselves, would we stop and try to help? Would we recognize that even with failure staring us in the face, there was still something worth fighting for?
Would our lives up to that point — the way we were treated, and the way we learned to treat others — have given us the instinct to recognize in that unthinking moment an “us,” and not just an angry, frustrated, and disappointed “I?”