“In the Olympic preoccupation with winners and losers, in the mania for counting medals, it is easy to forget what really constitutes triumph.”
I wrote that in 1992, as the first sentence in my story about British runner Derek Redmond’s “excruciating and exhilarating” demonstration of the human spirit as he staggered to a last-place finish with a torn hamstring in the Olympic 400-meter final.
Those words came back to me immediately as I saw and heard and read about what befell U.S. runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin – and, more importantly, how they reacted to it – in a Tuesday morning heat of the 5,000-meter in Rio.
D’Agostino, like Redmond, will win no medal. USA Track & Field announced Wednesday that the serious knee injuries she sustained after a tangle with Hamblin will keep D’Agostino from running Friday’s final.
What D’Agostino has won is more important. She has gained the respect of the whole world because, at likely the saddest moment of her athletic career, she looked beyond herself.
And so did Hamblin.
Each deserves a gold medal for her humanity – and selfnessness that put a golden glow on humanity at large.
You probably know the rudiments of the story. Well into the heat, which is 12 1/2 laps around the track, someone’s foot clipped someone else’s. That happens all the time in track racing, with athletes packed closely together, and most of the time the worst outcome is a temporary loss of balance.
This time, Hamblin fell, and D’Agostino fell over her. The New Zealander, seemingly dazed, landed on her stomach. D’Agostino was briefly laying on her own back. Both were hopelessly behind the leaders, yet each sacrificed more time for the sake of the other.
D’Agostino got up quickly and then helped Hamblin up, insisting that they finish the race.
“I was like, `Yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games. We have to finish this,’’’ Hamblin said.
That apparently was not a significant physical challenge for Hamblin. But D’Agostino was in tremendous pain from trauma that an MRI would show included a complete tear of her ACL, a tear of the meniscus and a strain of the MCL. She started running again, then stopped and sat on the track.
Hamblin stopped, turned and helped D’Agostino up. The 24-year-old Dartmouth grad winced and limped her way to the finish, where Hamblin was waiting with a hug, and an official arrived with a wheelchair.
|Abbey D'Agostino (R) is assisted by Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand after a collision in the women's 5,000-meter at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Hamblin immediately understood she had been part of something much bigger than a race.
“Everyone wants to win, and everyone wants a medal,” Hamblin said. "But as disappointing as this was for myself and Abbey, there’s so much more to this than a medal.”
Officials advanced both to the final, even though such a move is not guaranteed under the rules. Maybe they simply were as blown away by the sportsmanship as everyone else has been.
D’Agostino cited her faith when she explained what had happened in a statement from USATF:
“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he's made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance -- and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
There are legitimate reasons to carp at the Olympics for sometimes being less than what they aspire to be. And such kindnesses as those done by Hamblin and D’Agostino occur every day in the world, with no one watching. But there is no doubt the Olympics also provide an opportunity for athletes to be seen, by audiences in the hundreds of millions, carrying the torch for our better natures, for our collective humanity.
“By far the best part of my experience of the Olympics has been the community it creates, what the Games symbolizes,” D’Agostino said in the statement. "Since the night of the opening ceremonies, I have been so touched by this -- people from all corners of globe, embracing their unique cultures, yet all uniting under one celebration of the human body, mind, and spirit. I just keep thinking about how that spirit of unity and peace is stronger than all the global strife we're bombarded with and saddened by on a daily basis."
Hamblin and D’Agostino both still are listed among the 18 starters for the final. D'Agostino certainly will not be there.
Except in spirit. That evanescent Olympic spirit, caught like lightning in a bottle by two athletes from opposite ends of the earth.
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.