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August 28, 2008

The Olympics: Sportswomanship

So the Olympic athletes have made their way home from Beijing, and some of them are appearing on talk shows this week to talk about their appearances. I was watching Jay Leno talk to Dara Torres about her great show of sportsmanship before one of her semi-final races, and I thought it would be fun to share that story and some of the other really cool stories of sportswomanship from Beijing.

[We also thought that these stories would make a nice counterpoint to some of the stories of poor sportsmanship that unfortunately surfaced during these games - the wrestler who dropped his bronze medal on the floor and stormed out in the middle of his event's medal ceremony, the picture that surfaced of the Spanish men's basketball team slanting their eyes while posing for an ad, the accusation of unfairness and dishonesty in a men's tennis match, the IOC's criticism of world record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt, and of course the taekwondo competitor who kicked the referee in the face after being disqualified.]

~American swimmer Dara Torres was getting ready for the semi-final of the 50m freestyle event when one of the other swimmers, Therese Alshammar of Sweden ripped her swimsuit. (The new suits that many of the swimmers wear are very tight and the material is thin, so rips do happen sometimes.) They tried to fix the rip but weren't able to, and when Dara and the other swimmers got out to the blocks, Dara noticed that Therese was missing and realized that she had gone back to try to quickly change into a new suit. Instead of saying 'great, one less person that I have to beat to qualify' or 'that's her problem' or just ignoring it and trying to get focused on the important race ahead of her, Dara went over to the side of the pool to tell the officials what had happened and see if they could hold up the race to give Therese a minute to change, which technically they didn't have to do and might not have done if they weren't informed about why she was late. Obviously Dara's focus wasn't bothered, because she went on to finish first in her semi-final race on her way to an eventual silver medal in the final. And I guess at this point I should mention that Dara Torres is 41 and has a two year old daughter. I hardly need to considering how often the media mentioned her age during the games, but that's no reason not to point out how amazing it is for her (and for the gymnast that I'm about to mention) to be able to continue to compete at the highest level of her sport after having a child, especially when that sport is one in which many of her competitors are half her age.

Dara Torres and daughter Tessa

~Oksana Chusovitina is the first five-time Olympian ever in the sport of women's artistic gymnastics. In Beijing, she won a silver medal on the vault at the age of 33, which is way over the hill in gymnastics terms. But that’s not the amazing part. Oksana competed on the unified Russian team in 1992 and then later for Uzbekistan, until 2002 when her 3 year old son Alisher was diagnosed with leukemia. Uzbekistan has no developed children's oncology programs and full hospitals in Moscow couldn't make any promises, so she called a friend who was a coach of the German team, where she had done some training previously. The team told her to come to Germany with her family and that they would do everything they could to help. With help from the team, the University of Cologne, Toyota (the team sponsor), WOGA (the gym in the US where Nastia Liukin trains), and some other donations from around the gymnastics world, Oksana and her husband were able to cover the costs of Alisher's treatments, which included seven rounds of chemotherapy over two years. She also kept going with gymnastics partly as a way of continuing to raise money for the treatments. Oksana said of that time, "At the time, I was still competing for Uzbekistan. They told me if I take German citizenship, after three years, everything will be free for Alisher. I think in my place, every mother would do the same thing. The child is first. For me, it doesn't matter if I ever compete in a world championships again; I was only thinking about Alisher."

Today, Alisher's cancer is in remission and he is healthy enough to follow in his mom's footsteps by doing gymnastics. "Germany has done many great things for him. We never thought that another country or another people would help you like this. I now know that the world has more good people than bad people. When we came to Germany, in one week he was already in the hospital and receiving treatment. Germany gave life to my son," says Oksana. And her good performances in international competition helped the German team to qualify for the Olympic team competition in Beijing. "She is a very big motivator for our team," said national coach Shanna Poljakova. The silver that Oksana won on the vault was the first individual Olympic medal of her career (she won a team gold medal in 1992), and she hasn't ruled out trying to compete in London in 2012. We wouldn't bet against her.

Oksana Chusovitina and her son Alisher

~During the women's gymnastics team final, Alicia Sacramone made two big errors in the final two events, leading many people (including Alicia herself, it seems) to put a lot of the blame on her for Team USA's second place finish to the Chinese team. Of course, that really isn't fair considering that China's margin of victory was much bigger than the deductions from those two errors, and obviously it was a team event and she wasn't the only one to make a mistake during the competition. During a team interview afterwards, Shawn Johnson was asked about Sacramone's performance, and she replied by saying "Alicia is the strongest person I know", going on to say that they were a team, that Alicia was part of the team, and that she was proud of what they had been able to accomplish together and how well they represented their country in winning the silver medal. The reporter seemed a little disappointed that instead of any hint of criticism or placing blame, she got team unity instead.

Alicia Sacramone and Shawn Johnson

~At the age of 38, Constantina Tomescu-Dita became the oldest woman ever to win the Olympic marathon.

~South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, who lost her leg in 2001 when her scooter was hit by a car, made history this year by being the first athlete ever to qualify for both the Paralympics and the Olympics. She's only the second amputee, and the first female amputee, ever to qualify for the Olympics. (The last time it happened was in 1904.) Natalie competed in the 10k open water swim, a grueling event where it's not unusual for competitors to try to grab and dunk each other, and she finished 16th in a field of 25. 16 year old American swimmer Chloe Sutton said, "I was swimming next to her and she beat me -- and she has one leg. It's incredible she was able to do that." And Natalie says she'll be back in 2012.

~Palestinian swimmer Zakia Nassar was one of two women on the four-member Palestinian Olympic team. "Nassar, a 21-year-old dentistry student, is one of the few women from her region ever to swim in the Olympics. She did most of her training - sporadically and without a coach - in a 12-meter pool because she lacked a permit to reach the nearest Olympic-size pool in Israel."

~Sprinter Dana Hussein of Iraq posted the 59th fastest time in the qualifying round of the 100m race, a personal best time for her. She has faced constant threats and hardships while training in Iraq, and has even been shot at: "...she's dodged more than just tufts of grass on the crushed 1980s concrete that serves as her training ground. Threats, checkpoints, and very real bullets have been just three of the obstacles. And with her trainer, a Sunni, (she's a Shiite), she has also sprinted improbably past three brutal years of sectarian killings. One of only two Iraqis to compete in track and field this summer, Hussein is proud and determined to represent Iraq, despite the odds. Still, her dreams extend beyond the medals. Says Hussein: 'Sports can unify the Iraqi people — no Sunnis, no Shiites, just sport for the country'."

~American weightlifter Melanie Roach has three kids (one with autism), has recovered from major back surgery, and has campaigned for her husband, a Washington state representative who is up for reelection. Somewhere in there she found the time to qualify for the Olympics. She finished sixth overall and set a new American record. "She let out a satisfied scream after releasing the bar on her final lift, an expression, she said, that was 'relief, it was joy, it was excitement, it was the culmination of 14 years [as a lifter] and definitely eight years waiting to come back to the Olympics. .. Definitely, worth the wait'."


Katie said...

Wow. Just wow.

Kim said...

Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing all of those wonderful stories. It is a damn shame that those stories aren't the focus of the media during the Olympics.