We Need Medals For Truly Inspirational Olympians

August 6, 2012

Portions of this story originally appeared in my Free Press column of September 9, 2004. With the London Olympics in full swing, these inspiring performers, and performances, are well worth remembering.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin had it right.

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

The father of the modern Olympic Games never had nightmares about security scandals, embarrassing comments from American presidential candidates, and top seeds intentionally losing matches. But as the Games have slowly been swallowed up by politics, television, and endorsement contracts, perhaps we have lost our way.

Our Olympic focus should be on extraordinary athletes like South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, who made it to the semi-finals of the 400 meter run in London despite having both of his legs amputated just below the knee at 11 months old.

Or South Korean archer Dong Hyun, who won gold at both Athens and Beijing, and then set two new world records in London - and is legally blind.

Or Natalie du Toit, a 28-year old South African swimmer, who won her country's national title in the women's able-bodied 10km open water swim - without a left leg!! And without a prosthetic. In 2008, du Toit became the first amputee to qualify for the Olympics after finishing fourth in the 10 km race at the Open Water World Championships in Seville, Spain. She was selected by her country's Olympic Committee to carry their flag at the opening ceremonies of both the 2008 Summer Paralympics, and Olympics, in Beijing, making her the first disabled athlete to have this honor in an able-bodied Olympics. She placed 16th in the 10k in Beijing.

In fact, I think that there should be special medals presented to Olympic athletes who demonstrate the best of what humanity can be. Who display extraordinary courage and dedication to their sport, and truly inspire the world.

Most of us are familiar with Americans who might qualify. Jesse Owens, Lance Armstrong, the 1980 Ice Hockey team in Lake Placid. You might have seen the superb mini-documentary about Greek legend Stelios Kyriakides, who ran the 1946 Boston Marathon to raise money for his war-devastated homeland.

My winners come from very diverse parts of the world, with nothing in common but the Olympic Ideal, and the passion to sacrifice without asking "for how much?"

The Bronze medal goes to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania who, despite being bloodied, bandaged, and having dislocated his knee from a bad fall early on in the race, courageously finished the 26 miles of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic marathon. Last place. An hour behind the winner.

The small remaining crowd in University Stadium didn't even know there was a runner still on the course, but when it was announced, the response was electrifying. As Akhwari hobbled the final lap, they encouraged him with a thundering ovation that far exceeded the one given the famous Ethiopian who, hours earlier, had come in first. When Akhwari literally dragged his damaged leg across the finish line, he collapsed into the arms of the medical personnel, who immediately whisked him off to the hospital.

Akhwari, who was never of the caliber to win, has endured in Olympic history for his simple post-race statement. When asked why he did not just quit, he seemed confused by the question. Finally, he answered, "My country did not send me 11,000 kilometers to start the race. They sent me 11,000 kilometers to finish." The Tanzanian Olympic training program is now named the John Stephen Akhwari Athletic Foundation.

Taking home the Silver is Jose Pedraza, also in Mexico City. A woodcutter from the local mountains, who actually did win a silver.

Mexico had never won an Olympic medal in anything. The 1968 Games were becoming a national disaster, as the people rioted over the millions of dollars being spent on the Games amidst the poverty of the country. More than 200 protestors were killed as the army moved to restore order. Mexico needed a reason to cheer.

It came in the 20 kilometer walk. The first finisher into the stadium was a Soviet. The second walker, another Soviet. Both world class, and expected to win. But the third - was a Mexican! The shocked crowd went loco. 100,000 people screaming "Me-hi-co! Me-hi-co!"

Pedraza had never seen so many people in one place in his life. And by now he was practically running, but who was going to interfere with this moment of national frenzy?

Halfway through the final lap he passed one Russian. The crowd was deafening. Me-hi-co!!! Me-hi-co!!! Even Jim McKay, calling the race for ABC-TV, was cheering. At the finish line, Pedraza was closing on the leader, and if the race had been 20 kilometers and 100 meters he might have won. He finished second by a mere two seconds, the first time a Mexican had ever won a medal, and he did it in front of his countrymen, when they most needed him.

Pedraza's inspiration had such an impact that Mexico has become one of the world's leading Race Walking countries, with nine Olympic medals since 1968. That makes it the third most successful nation in history, behind Russia and Germany. In fact, one of the best Canadian racewalkers in London is Inaki Gomez, a native Mexican who learned his technique in his birth country.

But for Gold-medal "struggle", it doesn't get any better than 26-year old Shun Fujimoto of Japan in the team gymnastics competition in Montreal, 1976.

Fujimoto had broken his patella during the floor exercise early in the day, and though broken kneecaps are particularly painful and debilitating, he didn't tell either his coach or his teammates. He competed in the pommel horse, and scored 9.5. The gold medal would be decided on the rings. Without any painkillers, he hobbled to the apparatus, was hoisted up, and performed a near-flawless routine. Everything came down to his dismount.

Fujimoto knew what was coming. He'd been forced to think about it all day. As he said later in the TBS' 100 Years of Olympics video, "There was only one thing to do. I must try to forget the pain." From eight feet off the ground, he would have to land, and remain, perfectly straight, on both legs.

He twisted through a triple somersault, and stuck a perfect landing. Legs still, impassive to the pain. Then his face registered the damage, as his already-broken kneecap dislocated, and the ligaments in his leg shredded. Fujimoto collapsed in tears as he was awarded a 9.7, his best score ever. Japan won the gold by .4 over the USSR in the closest gymnastics competition in Olympic history. Despite the injuries, which crippled him for life, Fujimoto refused assistance as he climbed the victory stand.

When asked how he was able to do it, Fujimoto said "My desire to win was greater than my moment of pain." But one physician who treated him afterward exclaimed "How he managed to do somersaults and twists and land without collapsing in screams is beyond my comprehension."

Oddly enough, Fujimoto has never been comfortable in the martyr's role. Asked years later if he, given the same choice, would do again what he did in Montreal, he wasted little time in answering with an emphatic, "No. I would not."