SINGAPORE — Fate threw them together.
Together they made sports history.
They bridged 90 miles, 50 years and a raft of political complexities, two teenagers, both 18 years old, one American, the other Cuban.
In the mixed relay event that wrapped up the modern pentathlon competition at these first-ever Youth Olympic Games, Cuban Leydi Laura Moya Lopez and American Nathan Schrimsher competed together as a team. Two nations, one entry on the start sheet.
After a long day of fencing, swimming, running and shooting, they finished 16th of 24.
No one cared.
Just competing together was all that mattered — their appearance, according to current and former senior U.S. Olympic Committee staff, believed to be the first time an American and Cuban had paired up as sports buddies in an Olympic-style event in decades.
“It was normal,” she said. “In competition, all is beautiful.”
He said, “She doesn’t speak much if any English. I don’t speak any Spanish. But we got along really well; we were high-fiving, giving each other hugs, encouraging each other. We both do pentathlon so we both speak pentathlon and understand each other — our pains and groans and aches. So we were able to help each other.”
Over the years that Fidel Castro has been in charge on the island nation, Cubans and Americans have of course competed against each other many, many times at untold number of events. And some Cuban athletes — think Major League Baseball — have made it to the States to compete with Americans in professional sports.
But an American and a Cuban together, as teammates, on the Olympic scene — that was believed to be a first.
It made for a study in the very essence of sport — and a reminder that while sport hardly offers a direct path to world peace there are moments when sport can offer a dialogue and a path that virtually nothing else can.
The pairing in pentathlon, as it would turn out, came on the very same day that a Saudi Arabian girl, Dalma Rushdi H Malhas, the first Saudi female ever to compete at an Olympic event, won bronze in the individual equestrian event.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, on hand at the Singapore Sports School to watch the swim portion of the pentathlon, said, “Sure, sport is an instrument of change.”
He cautioned, “We should not overload sport with potential that it does not have. Sport alone will not bring peace. Sport alone will not keep peace. It can contribute to other efforts — by politicians, by public opinion, by non-governmental organizations — to create a peaceful planet. We are participating in that effort.”
These first-ever Youth Games now seem destined to be remembered for such sentiments, in part because the IOC and the international sports federations gambled on experiments such as mixed relays.
Some sports featured mixed events in which boys and girls competed together but still for their own country. The swim meet here, for instance, saw mixed 400-meter freestyle and medley relays; China won both.
Other sports mixed not only boys and girls but nations.
In archery, for example, the mixed event saw a girl from Spain and a boy from Bangladesh paired up. They finished fourth.
‘It was fascinating,” said Yasaman Shirian, a 17-year-old archer from Iran who teamed up with Ibrahim Sabry of Egypt in the team event. They finished 17th. She said, “It didn’t matter whether you came first or last because you were enjoying being with another person. The best part is making good friends with people from other countries.”
Track and field mixed it up by continents — and, in a further quirk, by distance.
So, for instance, the line-up for the Americas boys’ relay team looked like this: Brazilian Caio Dos Santos running first, for 100 meters; Jamaican Odane Skeen, the individual 100 gold-medalist, running the next leg in the relay, which was 200 meters; Najee Glass, a 16-year-old from Woodbridge, N.J., running the third leg, which was 300 meters; and, finally, Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic running the anchor leg, 400 meters. The Americas boys won handily — and, to the relief of anyone who has seen a USA relay in recent years, Najee handled the baton smoothly.
Gilbert Felli, the senior IOC official who oversees the delivery of Olympic events, said in an interview with the Young Reporters program — another Youth Games initiative, with more than two dozen aspiring journalists from around the world — that the mixing and matching was highly unlikely to make its way into the traditional Summer Games program.
For one, he suggested, such mixed events can help the Youth Games achieve its own identity.
For another, he said, the competitive and commercial pressures of chasing a medal at the traditional Games are all but sure to prove far too intense to allow for such experimentation at the Summer Olympics.
“We have to look at the Youth Olympics as a special event,” he said. “It is not a mini-Olympics.”
The mixed fencing competition here last week split the Americas teams into two.
Americas 1, made up of four Americans and two Canadians, took bronze.
Americas 2 finished seventh of eight. That team included a Canadian, Argentinian, Brazilian, Salvadoran and finally, 17-year-old Redys Hanners Prades Rosabal of Cuba and Mona Shaito of the United States, a 16-year-old from Garland, Texas.
“I thought about it,” Mona said. “I thought, wow. This is really weird, how nobody from the U.S. is allowed in Cuba, and here we are competing with somebody we’re not allowed to get into their country with. It was amazing.”
The pentathlon competition Tuesday took USA-Cuba one step further — to a genuine partnership.
Nathan, who is from Roswell, N.M., was thrown together with Leydi by chance; their names were picked out of a glass bowl in a draw made Sunday evening.
Because she had won the individual gold, some had thought before the mixed event Tuesday that they might be medal contenders.
But no — as she would acknowledged later, she was so tired from winning the individual event that she didn’t have much left.
“The competition was good,” she said. “Sports are sports. If I had to compete with the United States, I was happy about it.”
He said, “Competing with Cuba was amazing. I don’t know all the politics and everything. I know there’s a lot of tension. Competing with her — there wasn’t any problem. We’re just pentathletes. We’re people, too. We enjoy what we do and had a blast doing it.”