Olympic heroes: They won hearts, not medals

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Citius, Altius and Fortius may be the motto of the Olympics, but the Games isn’t only about the fastest, highest and strongest.

The Olympics has always loved gallant losers. Winning is important in sports, as in other spheres of life, but losing isn’t shameful in the quadrennial celebration of human endeavour.

The odds athletes overcome to make the Olympics and the spirit they show on the field of competition don’t go unnoticed.

USSR gymnast Olga Korbut became more famous for her reaction to a loss than for her three gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.

Her charm, grace, innocence and vulnerability wowed the crowd at Munich. After helping the Soviet Union win team gold, Korbut made a series of errors in the uneven bars to drop out of individual all-round medal reckoning. The 17-year-old wept like a child and the tears endeared her to fans all over the world.

Here we catalogue the Olympic journey of three glorious losers.

John Stephen Akhwari

Fans weren’t even aware that the marathon was still on when the Tanzanian runner entered the Olympic Stadium at the 1968 Mexico Games.

The Ethiopian winner of the event had taken the plaudits more than an hour ago and the stadium was almost empty at the time of Akhwari’s entry.

The rarefied air of Mexico made distance running a nightmare. In addition to lack of oxygen, Akhwari also fell midway through the race, hurting his right knee in the process.

Running was beyond his reach towards the end. He was just hobbling. But the gritty African runner didn’t give up. Akhwari was determined to finish the race and he did achieve his objective in excruciating pain.

When a reporter asked Akhwari why he carried on in such agony, the Tanzanian said: “My country didn’t send me to Mexico to start the race.

They sent me to finish the race.” The IOC gave an award to Akhwari during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Games for being a living symbol of the Olympic ideal.

Derek Redmond

Bad luck shadowed the British single-lap specialist throughout his career. Injury forced his withdrawal from the 1988 Olympics 10 minutes before the start of his race.

Redmond did better in the next edition by qualifying for the 400m semifinals. But tragedy struck near the 150m mark: hamstring snapped in his right leg.

Redmond went down, clutching his right thigh. But he managed to get up and hop on his left leg, not ready to heed the words of technical officials.

With 100m to go, a portly man wearing a blue shorts hoodwinked the security personnel and approached the limping athlete.

It was Redmond’s father, Jim. In one of the moving images of the 1992 Barcelona Games, the Redmond Sr lent his son a shoulder to cry on.

The Redmonds marched together towards the finish line to a standing ovation of 65,000 people. It is not easy to control your tears when you watch the Redmond video on YouTube.

Eric Moussambani

Popularly known as Eric the Eel, the Equatorial Guinean swimmer won his 100m freestyle heat at the 2000 Games because the other two competitors in the fray had been disqualified.

He swam the distance all alone in 1:52.72s, which was slower than the 200m free world record. His leisurely pace didn’t take him to the next round but the underdog won the hearts of the Australian crowd.

Eric had learned swimming only in January, 2000. He hadn’t seen an Olympic-size pool before he came to Sydney. Taking part in the Olympics was a victory in itself for Eric.

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