You may have heard in the Olympic coverage about a rower from Niger named Hamadou Djibo Issaka who came in dead last in his event but rowed across the finish line to a standing ovation. Major news outlets are covering this as a feel good story.
Djibo Issaka is reminiscent of Eric the Eel, the 2000 Sydney swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who swam poorly enough to more than double the existing world record in the 100 m freestyle. Some see this as the embodiment of the Olympic spirit: small, developing countries participating in established events. Others, like 5-time Olympic gold medal rower Sir Steven Redgrave, are purists. They don’t hand out Es for Effort.
Djibo Issaka was chosen by Niger’s selection committee as a wild card as part of a program by the Olympic governing body. He’d trained for only three months before the Games and was thrown in just to have a live body representing his country.
It’s not as if Djibo Issaka himself should be criticized. I can see how that it’s a natural human response to cheer on the lovable loser. But in an effort to add character to the Games and sell a story, the media made too much of a crowd cheering on a horrible Olympic performance that literally could have been accomplished by almost anyone in the world (I could easily come in dead last in this event).
I too have been thrust into a sporting event with little time to prepare myself for competition.
Seventh grade: my basketball coach encouraged me and my teammates to go out for track and field in order to stay in shape during the off-season.
Showing no natural speed, jumping ability (though this hindered my basketball ability, teams serve as cover for ineptitude), or discus throwing prowess, the coach put me in the only feasible position: long distance running. At that age and at my particular school, long distance running was the equivalent of playing outfield in Little League.
My memories of junior high are stained by my constant battle against what I call ‘shit shyness’—my term for the fear of shitting in public places. I just couldn’t poop at school. I don’t know what my problem was. Like a tornado brewing on the Great Plains, each early afternoon began with a rumbling that would grow into a tortured roar by the 3 o’clock bell. I learned how to manage this and staved off many close calls.
But my first (and only) track meet threw me off schedule. The team loaded up in the school bus and made the hour long drive to the meet. The bus’ jostling along the underpaved Texas backroad didn’t help my efforts to maintain composure in the face of impending doom.
The two mile event requires eight laps around the track. My gait was poor—a clench and a grimace bookended by short strides. I was lapped by everyone including the next-to-last-placed kid. The race leaders lapped me more than once. In my mind I was the laughing stock of the track meet, though that fear was crowded out by the voice inside my head screaming “don’t shit your pants, don’t shit your pants.”
Nobody cheered me on as I mostly speed-walked into my last lap. As I neared the starting / finish line the official asked me if I wanted to continue. I was holding up the entire track meet, he told me. “No,” I said and exited the track and made a beeline for the toilet.
The ironic thing about shitting your pants is that it almost always happens when you’re so close to the finish line. I could have used a cheer section at the moment I bust through the dank, trough-having, bomb shelter-styled bathroom—the pulsations of push bullying my guts. But I didn’t make it. My brain ran ahead of my body and imagined a commode which I hadn’t quite found. But at that point you no longer care. You just sit back and bask in the warmth. Nothing you can do, really. I shared Djibo Issaka’s thoughts upon his poor showing: “It went well. I passed the finish line, it was great.”
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