Fate’s unfair hand in Olympic lives

Loss may be a part of life, but when losses are sudden, unexpected or especially grievous, they are mourned more intensely than if they are merely a downside of the slow, inexorable trajectory of life. And there is something genuinely tragic about losing someone at his or her absolute peak of skill, when that person is not just full of promise but has already demonstrated excellence, and who combines record achievement with an equally bright future. The sporting world has had its share of losses recently. Perhaps the biggest Olympics-related news of late had to do with the unrelated accident, worthy of Biblical irony, that laid up one of its greatest champions, the skier Hermann Maier. The double-gold medalist at Nagano in 1998, who seemed likely to repeat that triumph at the Salt Lake City Winter Games this February, might, after a few horrific seconds on a slick road, never don a pair of skis in competition again, or at least for a long time. Maier not only ruled the slopes but reigned supreme. He was a poster-boy for the sport, for the Winter Olympics, and for his native Austria; powerful, ruggedly handsome, unpretentious and self-effacing, a modern Alpine product who harkened back to traditional, rural mountain life, who exhibited ferocious determination to go with panache and skill both on and off the piste. He did not just win races, he annihilated his opponents in races as diverse as the technically challenging giant slalom and the speed-dominant downhill race, while being among the most popular of athletes to boot. A rank outsider to his country’s strict ski federation, he exploded onto the skiing circuit a few years ago with the perversely appealing resume of being a former bricklayer; and his trophy cabinet included Olympic gold medals, world championship titles, numerous (41 and counting) World Cup wins and three overall titles. And he was a more wholesome counterpart to another great skier of the 1990s, Italy’s Alberto Tomba. Not surprisingly, they were the two known by (and for) their nicknames; Tomba la Bomba had his match in The Herminator. Unfortunately, like many athletes in so-called risky sports, he likes speed in many varieties and is also a motorcycle aficionado. Out for a ride, he had to swerve to miss two cars and skidded into a ditch where he sustained multiple fractures to his lower right leg, as well as losing two teeth. For a short time there were fears that his shattered leg might even have to be amputated, but that danger passed. Now he is recuperating from injuries that put on indefinite hold, and possibly put paid to, one of the most brilliant sporting careers of the past decade, although recent reports suggest cause for some optimism about the eventual return of an athlete renowned for overcoming obstacles. (At Nagano, he took a gold just two days after a terrible fall in the downhill). Briefly, the accident echoed Abebe Bikila, the shy Ethiopian who won the 1960 Rome Marathon barefooted, repeated it (with shoes) in 1964, then spent the rest of his shortened life in a wheelchair after a car crash. It was the athletic equivalent of Julie Andrews losing her singing voice – which she has, allegedly because of bad medical advice – incalculable if not quite inexplicable losses to anyone who admires natural talent, richly applied. Careers are so brief In its own dramatic way, Maier’s story reflects a broader truth about sports, which is that even the most accomplished athletes are around for a mere wink of an eye – even those with enough good fortune to be able to end their careers on their own terms, like the sprinter Michael Johnson. Athleticism is timeless, but the purveyors of sport are like contemporary gladiators, with punishing regimes, grueling training and competition schedules, so well-honed (and, in some cases, drugged) that their bodies are, perversely, prone to injury. In many ways they really are here today, gone tomorrow. Yet Maier, like a few other modern sporting icons and Olympians such as basketball player Michael Jordan, pole vaulter Sergei Bubka or tennis champion Steffi Graf, will inevitably leave a huge void, the more so because he was riding so high at the hour of reckoning. At Salt Lake City, Maier will be very much present because of his absence (barring a miracle) from competition. Even for athletes more fortunate than Maier, the ticking of the body clock continues ceaselessly. At the recent World Track Championships in Edmonton, the Ethiopian Haile Gebreselassie, one of the all-time great runners who took the 10,000-meter gold in a near-photo finish at Sydney, seemed headed for victory straightaway when he was overtaken on the final turn and faded to third. Bronze for a legend is not something we should feel sorry for; yet one could almost see him age as he ran, seemingly falling from icon to the also-ran category in those few dozen seconds. Even the most well-conditioned body can only keep that edge for so long. The 1,500-meter victor at Edmonton, Moroccan Hicham el-Guerrouj – as beautiful to watch as a gazelle in full stride – announced that he’s through with the race he’s dominated for a decade (though, perversely, he took only the silver at Sydney). And the appearance at Edmonton (alas not on the track) of an out-of-shape Cathy Freeman – Australian 400-meter runner and Sydney flame-lighter – was a reminder of how delicate that edge of peak fitness is, and how easily it can be lost. Lessons for 2004 There are, naturally, lessons for the 2004 Games and for Greece’s hopes to compete successfully. Its weightlifters, goaded on by popular coach Christos Iakovou, constitute a close-knit squad, which continues to produce amazing numbers of world-class lifters. Yet the greatest among them, Kahki Kakiashvili and Piros Dimas, are both on the wrong side of 30, and must be wondering if their bodies can take three more years’ punishment just to be ready for the Athens Games. Nikos Kaklamanakis, who just won the world windsurfing championships, will be 36 by then – almost grandfatherly for a sport dominated by overgrown teenagers. On the track, Greece is represented by some big-producing stars who are nonetheless now getting on. Costas Kenderis, who along with javelin thrower Costas Gatsioudis is perhaps Greece’s prime golden hope, will be 31 in 2004; old by sprinting standards. Will Greece’s pair of great female distance jumpers, Olga Vasdeki and Niki Xanthou, ever fully recover from injury to match their early performances, or have they already experienced their moment of glory? And how long will supercompetitive sprinter Katarina Thanou remain a genuine rival to the incomparable Marion Jones, several years her junior? Just how far can experience take an athlete and compensate for even slightly diminished speed or power? It is fortunate that the home squad can boast such genuine sporting personalities, both to generate public interest and as motivators, to encourage kids to get out and move their bodies a little. Still, it is of some concern that the Greek contingent may be top-heavy (reinforced by the over-the-top parade of Olympic champions that has greeted recent medal winners returning to Athens), with a finite number of established stars whose aim is to stay on top rather than to get there. Whether athletic careers fade out or come crashing down, they rarely last longer than an Olympic cycle or two. Time is so short, and fate can be so harsh. All the more reason to marvel at those who are here today, because they will not be here tomorrow, replaced by new talent but, one hopes, not forgotten quite yet.

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