In the first of our series on athletes overcoming obstacles, Travis Timmons recalls the story of Derek Redmond, who tore his hamstring in the middle of a Men’s 400 semi-final heat at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
I was nine. Summer of 1992. Barcelona Olympics. Men’s 400m semi-finals. It happens around 150 meters into the race: British sprinter Derek Redmond’s hamstring tears apart. The camera lingers over the wreckage for a few seconds, then jumps ahead to the finish line as the race ends. But it doesn’t. Today, we all know the iconic ending: first Redmond restarts his run with an agonizing one-legged skip, then his dad brusquely pushes aside staff, and physically supports his sobbing son across the finish line.
This moment is still the saddest thing I’ve seen in sports, yet is also—in many ways—the most mysterious.
I cried when I was nine. Two decades later, I felt deep sadness when a student reminded me of the moment during one of my research and writing classes. Then I almost cried again watching the video.
As a kid, my sadness was triggered by an awareness that the Olympics is the summation of unimaginable labor for these athletes; that is, the games are a four year marker of one’s toil, which means that the 1992 400m mens semi-finals undid four years of brutal and largely anonymous labor for Redmond. And the undoing seems so unfair: the athlete is here betrayed by his own body—at the worst of all possible moments.
As the oldest of (eventually) 11 kids, undone labor made me sick in the stomach.
I felt the rawest pity I’d ever felt as the Redmond tandem limped across the finish in Barcelona. In Aristotelian terms, it was a classic catharsis response for me of not only pity, but also fear. I was terrified that four years’ worth of work could be destroyed so suddenly. I was also angry that rules were rules and Redmond won nothing for his last place finish, or that years worth of labor wouldn’t be rewarded with a makeup race.
Even then as a 9 year old, I believed that the pumped up meaning of “the Olympic Spirit” narrative was paltry compensation for Redmond and his story. The man’s pain looked too dark, as broadcasted on his agonized and sobbing face. I could see that Redmond was belittled and overcome by his own iconic moment, as he repeatedly tried to hide his face in shame (and pain?), yet is thwarted repeatedly by his dad, who removes the fig-leaf hand covering the undone slouched face each time.
Indeed, Redmond still sounds disjointed when watching his moment. He riffs: “I find it more embarrassing to watch than anything. . . Men shouldn’t cry about things like that. I always turn away when that bit comes on. I feel uncomfortable with people watching me watching myself.”
Conceptually, the moment of high tragedy in this event occurs when the Redmond pair has just crossed the line and the son is, again, trying to hide his face, but the father pulls back the hand so that his son’s face must confront and gaze upon the spectacle around them. It’s the moment of high tragedy—human defiance in the cruel face of injustice, of fate screwing you over, of the gods being jerks, whatever. It says, “I’m here, I’m human; I’ve been wronged, but I’m great; I’m spirit.” Greatness. And Redmond, the son, seems to grasp tenuously to this knowledge for a few seconds as the video winds down.
Derek Redmond’s story, classically, resembles the ironic narrative of tragedy: human greatness being revealed through misfortune. (And does not misfortune sing so aptly as a word in such stories?) The misfortune is undeserved, arbitrary, or is simply a punishment that exceeds the crime—the punishment of a torn hamstring for the “crime” of disciplining one’s body to engage the frontier of physical achievement that is the Olympics.
Of course, Redmond finishing the race with his dad is now a contemporary icon of the Olympic spirit. But I can’t remember the event this way. The Olympic packaging transforms the moment into melodrama, reifying it into the grandest of all sports cliches: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” It’s not that I don’t believe this cliche, or don’t admire those who so obviously play sports this way. It’s that this packaging of the Derek Redmond story robs the event of its tragedy, which robs us of its greatness.
Why else is Redmond crying? Why is he embarrassed by the tears today?
I admire the tears of a broken man, who knows he is broken. Who knows that four years of training are rendered meaningless. The broken down runner now knows that his life must be recast, remade, and realigned. He must realize this trajectory during his ironic finish line crossing. So by crossing the finish line, he’s overcoming his broken body and his broken life path.
However, as a man now, my sadness is mostly triggered by Redmond’s dad. Emotionally, here I’m killed when the son is putting his arm around the father. It kills me that a grown man still needs his dad and that a dad’s response to tragedy is still to scoop up his grown son, then peel the son’s hands away from the shamed and crying face. Redmond’s athletically disciplined body is worthless; he needs his pudgy dad with a silly tee shirt to supplement the sprinter’s elegantly engineered body. The physical juxtaposition triggers pathos. Yet the familial and emotional juxtaposition is triumphant in its portrayal of abiding love and courage in publicly facing tragedy. My sadness about Redmond’s father is also ironic, I think: it’s sadness triggered by the son’s weakness and need for his father—a weakness that transforms itself, if I follow out my heart here, to love; that love is the catalyzing force needed to literally “face” tragedy and loss.
Next for me, it’s Redmond’s seemingly automatic compulsion to hop along on one leg, as if elemental urges drive him, as if he doesn’t know what else to do with his disciplined, yet broken, body. It’s a moment of relentless compulsion. Yet a compulsion that, within the laws of competition and the medal stand, is utterly without utility or compensation. It’s a meaningless action within the telos of the race’s rules, as well as the telos of the four years of training for the 400m. What else is this compulsion, but a defiant act committed under the crushing boulder of misfortune?
Because, after all, do we know what a body really can do?
A version of this post originally appeared at Sport Is Our Story.