This is the second of two blog posts about Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In Once were heroes… shining stars, we revisited the stories of Usain Bolt, Joseph Schooling and Micheal Phelps, maybe the most memorable Rio heroes, that combined for a total of 9 gold medals.
All medals have a reverse and Olympic ones make no exception: while the three men I just named ascended the highest heights of sports glory, four girls were hiding in a dark corner at the opposite end of the trajectory, sharing a tale of falls and painful defeats.
It is now time to look at the other side and into the life of few athletes whose names are not to be found on Rio Olympic champions lists.
Falls – Part I
Pole vaulting is a raffinate exercise of subtlety. In order to excel, an athlete has to perfectly control every fraction of his body and mind, while melting together speed, precision, grace, power, guts, iron muscles, lightness. In no other track and field specialty, a human body falls from a higher height than pole vault.
Yelena Isinbayeva jumped thousands of times in the long decade where she dominated this discipline and was trained to fall like no other. Nevertheless, the fall she had to experience while preparing for Rio, was of a kind she never endured before. A kind that hurts badly.
Nothing in Yelena childhood and family background anticipated that she would become one of the most successful athletes ever. Born from a humble family, her father is a plumber, her mother a shop assistant, she approached sports at the age of 5, when her parents enrolled her in gymnastics in her hometown Volgograd, Russia. At that time, they both worked full time and were looking for a way to keep Yelena busy.
She trained as a gymnast until at the age of 15 she attained the height of 1.74 meters and became too tall to be competitive in gymnastics. One day, her coach suggested she tried track and fields and pole vault but Yelena objected that she had never heard of such discipline. Her coach told her that if she did not like it, she did not have to continue. She ended up listening to the advice and her brilliant career was started.
Yelena Isinbayeva was undefeated for almost six consecutive years between 2004 and 2009, establishing an amazing 30 world records along the way. She was the first woman to pass the mythical bar of 5 meters, both indoor and outdoor and improved the world record by a total 24 centimeters. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2004, 2005 and 2008.
Many coaches analyzed Yelena jumps and observed that what sets her apart from any other woman specialist is her exemplary mastering of the so-called “L-Phase”, where it is vital to use the pole’s rebound to convert horizontal speed into height. They credited her gymnastic background for such a better gesture. Yelena explained her approach to pole vaulting with simpler words: “I like that I can control my body” she said once. “I like to fly. I like those feelings when you’re over the bar. It’s more beautiful than other track and field events.”
I witnessed one of her world records a summer night in Monaco in 2008, where she raised the bar to 5.04 meters and passed it. Yelena is a very communicative athlete: I remember that night her eyes full of joy and absolute determination.
In an unconventional move for an athlete of her caliber, who can easily make several hundred thousands of dollars at each appearance, in 2010 Isinbayeva decided to take a break from competitions.
She came back one year later, to face a fiercer pool of opponents. After conquering a bronze medal in 2012 London Olympic games she started cultivating the wish of a retirement in style, after Rio Olympics, a gold medal around her neck.
Another couple of years passed, Isinbayeva took another break to give birth to her daughter Eva in June 2014. In December of that same year another member of Russian athletics team, Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, appeared in a documentary on German television uncovering a large-scale doping fraud: Russian athletics officials supplied banned substances in exchange for 5% of athletes earnings and falsified tests together with doping control officers. Successive investigations revealed implication of Russian government, RUSADA (Russia anti-doping agency), secret services, WADA (World anti-doping agency), IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). Two former directors of RUSADA died in 2016; one of them had just approached the newspapers telling that he would publish a book on Russia state doping.
The scandal eventually led International Olympic Committee to ban all Russian track and field athletes from 2016 Rio Olympic games. In August 2016, WADA reported that Yuliya Stepanova’s account, containing confidential information like her personal address, had been hacked while no other athlete profile had been accessed. Stepanova and her husband had fled Russia after appearing on German television in 2014; after giving a fundamental contribution to the fight to re-establish transparency in sports, today they seek asylum in foreign countries and fear for their lives. They have been completely abandoned by sports institutions.
The ban was the sunset of Yelena Isinbayeva Olympic dreams: she was denied the possibility to compete, despite a spotless 14 years career where she never tested positive to an anti-doping examination. In a press conference, she said: “I will never agree with, and never forgive, my exclusion from the Olympics”. Paradoxically, being banned as a result of a doping scandal, she has been elected by fellows to serve an 8-year term on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission.
After Rio, during the Russian nationals, Yelena Isinbayeva posted the 2016 world leading jump of 4.90m and finally announced retirement.
Falls – Part II
The problem, in sports today, is that often the show on display on our TVs is pure fiction. We pretend to believe that what we see is real, but we know that it’s not true. Athletes take forbidden substances that enhance their performances and in doing so are covered by organizers, sponsors, sports institutions, that all happily sing with one voice “the show must go on”. Illegal betting alters results of football, tennis and many others sports worldwide.
From the very moment sponsors and television money invited themselves to the party and started crunching sportsmanship ideals, the race between doping and anti-doping technologies is as intense as the chase to new records.
The reality is that Russian athletes banned from Rio 2016 track and field were not the only cheats. Others have been unmasked during the games, many have probably gone uncaught, some will fall and will have to return their medals in the years to come when anti-doping tests will be repeated on samples collected in Rio. In this situation, believing in sports today is almost impossible.
The episode has become iconic, but I wish to recall it to those who missed it.
Heat 2 of women 5000 meters. Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin line up with favorite Almaz Ayana to chase a place in the final. In the second part of the race, while athletes are grouped in a confused bunch, the two girls collide and crash on the blue track.
Hamblin remembers: “(one moment after the fall I was down, thinking) What’s hit me? Why am I on the ground? And then suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like, ‘Get up, get up! We have to finish this!’ And I was like, ‘Yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games. We have to finish this!’ ”.
The voice was D’Agostino’s who jumped back on her feet and was about to restart running when she saw that Hamblin was still not moving. Nikki raised herself and the two girls resumed the race, but D’Agostino was clearly hurting and soon collapsed again. This time, Hamblin was there to lend a hand.
4 and 1/2 laps, almost 2000 meters, were still to go. Hamblin injury being way less serious than D’Agostino’s, Nikki passed the finishing line well behind the other athletes, in 16:43.61. Exhausted, she turned around and saw D’Agostino staggering down the track; Abbey finally crossed the line at the last place, more than two minutes after the winner, with a time of 17:10.02.
Nikki Hamblin waited for Abbey D’Agostino on the finish line, passed her arms around the other’s neck, then the two girls cried together.
Abbey D’Agostino had run for more than two kilometers with a torn cruciate ligament and was in too much pain to leave the track on her own feet. When race officers urged for a wheelchair Nikki helped Abbey to sit down and kept looking at her as she was carried away.
“I’m so impressed and inspired that she did that” Hamblin later declared and her words are the best possible end of the story.
The metaphorical medal that Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin won in Rio is more precious than Schooling, Bolt and Phelps ones and even more deserved than the one denied to Yelena Isinbayeva. It is a medal made of transparent, clean and fresh air, a substance that in today sports is much more needed and rare than gold.
Original images of this sportsmanship tale can be found here. Watch them, they are really refreshing.