Rio 2016: Olympians, Like Us


“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?”

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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2 Responses to Rio 2016: Olympians, Like Us

  1. Jon Hamilton says:

    Mr. Waldron,
    I happened to discover your recent post and insightful perspective on the recent event which occurred on the track in Rio during the Olympic Games and I can only say, “THANK YOU for so thoughtfully and purposefully providing a recognition and insightful reflection on what so many had witnessed unfold before their own eyes — either in real time, repeated replays or in a
    highlighted segment somewhere.
    Would we all pause and consider, and so succinctly come to appreciate both the everyday reactions and the sometimes extraordinary and remarkable, inspiring and simple demonstrations of true sportsmanship, empathy, kindness, and understanding – not only outside the lines but even within the confines of athletic activity and competition — the Olympic Ideal and Our Better Possibilities would be both enhanced and emboldened, unleashed, mutually shared and truly experienced.
    Perhaps every so often (and not necessarily having to wait or only see them in four year cycles limited to only ten days or so) such actions will become the new renewed standard for our own character development and resilient life skills to be better applied in our own daily lives and throughout the world —- both beyond international borders and certainly even beyond sport itself.
    I applaud and genuinely appreciate your chosen words and your insightful perspective to help others better recognize when they are witnessing truly remarkable and worthy of either better celebrating or sharing its universal truth or example of true humanity.
    I don’t know if you are old enough to remember or recall the example of the marathon runner who finished last in the last competed event in the 1968 Olympic Games held in Mexico City.
    I will always remember the response he made to curious reporters who had asked him what drove him or why he decided to continue to run after being so obviously injured and exhausted when he knew that the race had already been won and that all of the other competitors had already crossed the finish line and the crowd inside the stadium was only a relative few in number when
    he entered to complete his race around the track.
    The long-time filmmaker and historian of the Olympic Games, Bud Greenspan, used and highlighted this particular example along with the example of Al Oerter to demonstrate both the dedication and determination and resilience of the human spirit in one of his films a few decades ago. But I will also now point and cite your words in helping to both celebrate and acknowledge
    true sportsmanship and helping others to be able to recognize extraordinary moments of excellence as they so often unfold themselves or may be daily demonstrated for others to be both inspired and empowered to do likewise.
    Thank you from a former long-time teacher (8th grade U.S. history) and hopefully still a lifelong learner who is also still a student of the game of life. Never underestimate that your words and example reach far beyond a classroom or particular field of endeavor. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once so rightly expressed in a letter a relative — “IT IS ONLY WITH GRATITUDE THAT LIFE BECOMES RICH.” Sincerely,
    Jon Hamilton
    P.S. My daughter has been a cross country and distance runner since high school and she is
    about to enter her senior year at Nebraska Wesleyan University here in Lincoln, Nebraska.
    P.S. #2 I also plan to share your observation with a former Olympian and track and field sprinter
    who also happened to medal in a couple of events at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games when he returns back home later this summer.

    • Jon Waldron says:

      Thank you, Jon. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on this post.

      And thank you for reminding me of that incident at the 1968 Olympic Games. That story has always been an inspiration! For those who don’t know the story, here is what Wikipedia has to say:

      “While competing in the marathon in Mexico City, [John Stephen] Akhwari [Tanzania] cramped up due to the high altitude of the city. He had not trained at such an altitude back in his country. At the 19 kilometer point during the 42 km race, there was jockeying for position between some runners and he was hit. He fell badly wounding his knee and dislocated that joint plus his shoulder hit hard against the pavement. He however continued running, finishing last among the 57 competitors who completed the race (75 had started). The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27,[2] when there were only a few thousand people left in the stadium, and the sun had set. A television crew was sent out from the medal ceremony when word was received that there was one more runner about to finish.

      As he finally crossed the finish line a cheer came from the small crowd. When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

      All the best, and thanks again for your reminders about how important and powerful our example can be.

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