There are no losers here
Those who finish very, very far from medals still have accomplished much
LONDON -- One of the most thrilling events I've witnessed in London was the 10,000 meter men's final, when Britain's Mohamed Farah and America's Galen Rupp sprinted past the pack and stole the gold and silver with a spirited kick that left a jammed Olympic Stadium quaking with a mix of incredulity and wonder.
Still, as I watched that drama unfold, I couldn't help but feel a pang for the runners who held up the back end of that epic race, a number of whom were lapped before they crossed the finish line.
Three of them -- a Bahraini, an Ecuadoran and Kenyan Wilson Kiprop, who won his country's Olympic trials -- didn't finish.
Thus, the last person to cross the finish line was Ukraine's Mykola Labovskyy with a time of 29:32.12, more than 2 minutes off Farah's winning pace.
It got me thinking. Who is this poor guy? What went wrong? What will his country think? What will he say to his parents, his comrades, his wife and children, if he has any?
The Olympics are medal-centric. I totally get that. I'm like the rest of you: When I turn on my telly here in London first thing in the morning, I eagerly check the standings to see if we're gaining any ground on China in the medal grab (we aren't).
We love Michael Phelps because he was untouchable in Beijing, momentarily vulnerable in London, but, ultimately, a highly decorated champion. Who doesn't love a winner? The exploits of Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte, Gabby Douglas and Serena Williams stir passionate patriotic feelings you didn't know you had, spurring you to croon your national anthem feverishly in your living room.
I'm right there with you. But forgive me for a moment while I dwell on the so-called "losers." Maybe it's because I haven't done a whole lot of winning myself. In high school, I played on a dominant basketball team that won all the time until I missed the last shot to lose the state championship. That was 36 years ago.
Yep. Still not over it.
But I digress. Let's focus on Olympians, shall we?
Consider Mr. Labovskyy. Yes, he finished last in the 10,000 meters, but he did so averaging a sub 5-minute mile.
Sign me up for that kind of futility right now!
Here's what I gather from my short conversation with Ukraine's press attache, Ivan Bondarchuk, who may or may not have understood a single word I said. (I swear he was muttering, "What's this silly American woman calling me for? Does she understand only the top three finishers get medals?")
I believe Bondarchuk told me this was not Mykola's finest hour. In fact, as it turns out, his personal best in the 10,000 meters is 27:01.98 -- a time that would have won Olympic gold last Saturday night.
Just so you know, Labovskyy is an avid motor racing fan and does indeed have a son. My guess is he told his young offspring, "I'll be back."
I'm not sure we can say the same for 200 meter butterfly competitor Constantin Hocine Haciane. He qualified for these Games representing the tiny European country of Andorra, located in the eastern Pyrenees, bordered by Spain and France. Andorra boasts the fourth highest human life expectancy in the world (82 years) and enjoys an average of 300 days of sunshine a year.
We are wondering the same thing: Why would Haciane leave his mountainous paradise to endure spitting rain so he can get his head kicked in by Phelps? Actually, Haciane never experienced the pleasure of racing our American icon because he did not survive his qualifying race, which left him six and a half seconds behind the winner.
Weep not for Mr. Haciane, though. He is 26 years old and this is his third Olympic Games. He was chosen to be the flag bearer for his country in Athens at the tender age of 18 and is kind of a big deal in his tiny country. No medal, but plenty of cachet.
You won't hear much about Haciane or Labovskyy or the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other athletes in the days ahead. The U.S. soccer team and its dramatic win over Canada on Monday will justifiably dominate headlines, along with the U.S. women's basketball team and the ever-charismatic Usain Bolt.
You probably won't read much about Temi Fagbenle, a member of Great Britain's women's basketball team, which is already done with Olympic play.
Fagbenle was born in Baltimore to a large Nigerian family (she has 11 siblings) but her family moved to London when she was an infant. She played her high school basketball at Blair Academy in New Jersey, but she considers Great Britain home.
This winter Fagbenle will play for Harvard, for my old high school coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who invited me Sunday night to watch her prized recruit in action. (Guess she forgave me for missing that shot in high school).
Great Britain was guaranteed a women's basketball berth in these Games as the host country, and although the team played a number of close games, it couldn't muster a single W. Temi, who at 19 is the youngest player on the British team by a considerable margin, acquitted herself well in limited minutes.
After her squad fell to 0-4 in a loss to Brazil, she was greeted outside the arena by her family, her coaches from Blair Academy and Delaney-Smith. With the ovations she received, you would have thought she won the gold medal.
Try telling Temi Fagbenle she's not a winner. She was recruited by nearly every top program in the country (we're talking Stanford, UConn, Duke) before choosing Harvard.
She was disappointed that her national team couldn't win more, but she's convinced that it took a huge step forward in its development.
"I feel enormous pride for Great Britain," she said. "This was the greatest experience of my life."
After an obscure NCAA regulation prevented her from playing last season, Fagbenle is eager to start her first year with the Crimson. Her addition to the roster makes them instant favorites to win the Ivy League.
Like Labovskyy and Haciane, Temi will leave London without one of those coveted shiny medals.
But sometimes Olympic losers find a way to wind up big winners just the same.